As Standing Rock Protests DAPL, Upstream Reservation Looks To Exploit Oil Safely Hours from Standing Rock, N.D., is another reservation, in the the Bakken oilfield's sweet spot. Drilling has brought in millions of dollars, but the tribes have environmental worries, too.
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Upstream From Standing Rock, Tribes Balance Benefits, Risks Of Oil Industry

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Upstream From Standing Rock, Tribes Balance Benefits, Risks Of Oil Industry

Upstream From Standing Rock, Tribes Balance Benefits, Risks Of Oil Industry

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

While North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux tribe continues to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, it's a different situation 150 miles to the northwest. There, alongside the same river, a different tribe welcomes the pipelines and oil development. Here's Amy Sisk, of the public media project Inside Energy.

AMY SISK: Here on Fort Berthold, tribal members live right on top of pipelines. More than 4,000 miles criss-cross this reservation, home to the three affiliated tribes that call themselves MHA Nation. The reservation lies in the heart of the Bakken oil patch, and oil production is embraced here. Edmund Baker is the tribal environmental director.

EDMUND BAKER: We're in this oil play already. We want to be able to do it responsibly. We want to be able to do it competently. We want to show other tribes that it can be done.

SISK: T.J. Plenty Chief is barreling across an oilfield highway in his semi. He owns this truck and two others as part of his trucking business. He's supporting a family of 10, and says truck drivers here can make good money - more than $90,000 a year.

T.J. PLENTY CHIEF: Before the boom, you know, I had to work a lot harder and work at other jobs I didn't really care for as much, working at the casino or whatever, you know?

SISK: I'm standing next to a pump jack that's pulling oil to the surface from deep underground. A decade ago, there was almost no oil activity here. But today, there are more than 1,400 wells just like this one on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

DAVE WILLIAMS: We're trying to create a nation that really sustains itself through economic development and through its own abilities.

SISK: Dave Williams heads Missouri River Resources, the MHA-owned oil company. He walks with me around Newtown, with lots of retail and traffic heavy with pickups - a telltale sign we're in the oil patch. Oil's a way to help MHA's 15,000 tribal members be self-sufficient, and there's a ton of money involved - upwards of nearly $2 billion in revenue just since 2008. Here's tribal chairman Mark Fox.

MARK FOX: All this high cost of living that the oil boom created - we're trying to alleviate that.

SISK: With the new apartments for residents, a new health care system and payments of a thousand dollars to each tribal member three times a year, with that oil wealth has come a spike in crime and some environmental risks.

FOX: And we sure as hell don't want to do it in such a way that we taint or diminish the value of our most important asset, which is water.

SISK: One million gallons of wastewater leaked from a pipeline in 2014, threatening the reservoir holding the reservation's drinking water. Though they embrace oil production, tribal leaders are also embroiled in a dispute over pipelines, much like the Standing Rock Sioux to the south. They're concerned about a pair of new crude and natural gas lines slated to cross under the reservoir.

FOX: We're not against all pipelines, the ones on our land. But what we are against is when pipelines come onto Fort Berthold through other entities and think they're going to develop or utilize pipelines without the approval of our tribe.

SISK: MHA Nation has tried to halt construction, but a federal judge is allowing work to continue, saying the company has the necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the same agency Standing Rock is fighting in courts over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Like seemingly everything here in the oil patch, there is a cost-benefit analysis to make. And here on the Fort Berthold Reservation, they've decided that the pipeline infrastructure that they support and the wealth that it brings is, for now, worth the risk. For NPR News, I'm Amy Sisk in Bismarck.

INSKEEP: She's with Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.

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