Sitting Bull College
Sitting Bull College is a tribally controlled school in North Dakota.

Bakken Oil Fields Offer Tribal Colleges Challenges, Opportunities

Tanya Lee

From funding cuts precipitated by the federal sequester to changes in the rules for Pell grant recipients, tribal colleges face many challenges, but one of the most serious for colleges in the Northern Great Plains comes from a surprising source—the Bakken oil fields.

The oil fields cover about 200,000 square miles of the subsurface of the Williston Basin underlying parts of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In a report issued April 30, the United States Geological Survey estimated that the U.S. section of the Bakken formation holds 3.6 billion barrels (BBO) of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and the Three Forks formation (which lies under the Bakken formation) 3.73 BBO, double the agency’s 2008 estimate of the resource. In addition, the USGS estimated the Bakken and Three Forks formations hold 6.7 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 0.53 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has said the resource, the largest continuous oil formation in the continental United States according to the USGS, is expected to play a major role as the U.S. strives for energy independence.

The oil fields have stirred significant controversy, both for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology to recover the oil and the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport crude from the Bakken to the U.S. Gulf Coast. But at the same time, the Bakken oil fields have attracted huge investment from companies that want to cash in. Thousands of new oil and gas wells have been drilled in the Williston Basin since the USGS released its 2008 report, and more are going in every week.

As a result, tens of thousands of jobs have been created in the oil fields. North Dakota reported its May 2013 unemployment rate at 2.8 percent. Oil and gas companies are now paying top dollar to recruit workers—an entry level position can pay up to $80,000 a year.

No wonder some potential tribal college students are choosing to go to work instead.

David Yarlott, President of Little Big Horn College in Montana, says enrollment is down to 350 students from the 400 students the college has enrolled over the past several years. Some of those students left to work in the Bakken oil fields, says Yarlott. Mark Sansaver, grants manager for Fort Peck Community College, also in Montana, says the college usually has 400 students, but enrollment is down 20 percent.

“Students are typically going right into employment in the Bakken oil fields,” he says. Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College in North Dakota says enrollment is down to under 300 students, at about 280, from the school’s usual 330 to 340 students. The reason: High-paying work in the oil fields.

Other colleges are seeing the effects of the oil and gas boom in different ways. The influx of workers has put pressure on everything from rents to food prices. The Billings [Mont.] Gazette reports real estate prices are up 30 percent and Wal-Mart cannot hire enough people at $17/hour because of competition from the oil fields for workers.

Chief Dull Knife College President Richard Littlebear says he has seen a reduction in tribal college enrollment across the board, but at Chief Dull Knife, the reduction does not seem to be related to the Bakken oil fields directly. He said the impacts of local resource development, which he anticipates could happen on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana should a coal project get back on track, most affect infrastructure such as police, health services and transportation and often cause an escalation of drug and alcohol use. Any development, he says, will be disruptive.

“Looking at the future, we’re going to have to prepare as a tribe and as a state to ward off the negative impacts of an influx of people. Here on the reservation we’re pretty comfortable with how things are, but we have a young population and that kind of demographic will demand jobs. We have to be realistic.”

Taking a realistic approach is just what some tribal colleges are doing. Vermillion says Sitting Bull College is developing a certificate program for firefighters and a program on oil drilling, which the college will offer in an effort to increase enrollment.

Tex Hall, serving as chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold for an unprecedented third term, notes that the Mandan, Hidatsa and the Arikara Nation sits atop the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. “Blessed with oil and gas development” that will make the tribe debt free next year and put it on the brink of self-sufficiency, the tribe offers training and certification for oil workers, he says.

The Three Affiliated Tribes is one of the five North Dakota tribes that operate the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. President David Gipp says, “We want to participate more fully in the new economy and the development of the Bakken oil fields.” One way the college will accomplish that goal is to develop and operate a $33-million hotel project on campus adjacent to the Bismarck International Airport. The hotel, with 160 rooms, a 10,000-square-foot conference center, restaurant, business center and other state-of-the-art amenities, will serve corporate leaders coming to the area to do business in the oil fields, as well as leisure travelers. The hotel will provide educational opportunities for students in hotel management, business administration, security and food service.

And it will provide a revenue stream for the college itself, diversifying the college’s funding away from federal grants based solely on enrollment. Participation and diversification of economic opportunity—the Bakken oil fields may end up giving a lot more than they take from local tribal colleges.

Related stories:

Every Child Left Behind: Sequester Guts Indian Education, Part 3

Important Cultural, Religious and Historical Resources Threatened by Drilling

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