prairie power Two big wind farms near Ethridge, Montana, generate enough clean energy to supply about 70,000 homes.
people—no one, that is, except the oil companies themselves. “I went to a meeting at the federal building with this oil and gas dude from Denver,” she said—which I assumed meant from Anschutz. “He looks like he’s stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalog and he puts on what I call the cartoon about fracking, kind of an animated Bugs Bunny explanation. It’s s-o-o-o safe, he says.” She snorted. In 2012 New Breast and a number of friends formed a group they called Blackfeet Women Against Fracking. They went on a 100-mile “water walk” to dramatize what they saw as a threat to sacred sites, used social media to broadcast their skepticism, scrutinized the small print of new oil and gas leases, and urged people to watch the documentary Gasland, with its startling images of tap water catching fire in Colorado. Fracking to her was the perfect expression of a deep cultural divide. “In our Indian way of thinking, everything is equal, the earth is a living thing,” she said. “In the other way, the earth is our unending grocery store. When I hear about fracking, I say, oh my God, what’s going to happen to the berries or the earth medicines that I gather? I’m scared now to go and collect anything on the Little Badger [River], west of the fracking sites. I cannot vouch for these things. And what happens here is felt all over the earth. The headwaters move from here, the birds move from here, the seeds move from here, the wind moves from here.”
eri lawrence, a soft-spoken younger woman
of Blackfeet and Assiniboine descent, joined the conversation when it turned to wind. Her language was a little different from New Breast’s—she went to Central Washington University on a Native American scholarship, graduating with a master’s degree in resource management, and spoke in terms of megawatts and business plans—but her concerns were very similar. The wind farms she’d hoped to build on the reservation had to be subject to the same scrutiny as the oil wells. Were they safe? Did they infringe on sacred sites and treasured landscapes? She worried particularly about birds and told me that several of the turbines at the big Rim Rock wind farm, just off the eastern edge of the reservation, had been moved out of concern for nesting raptors. “We hold eagles to be especially sacred,” she said. Whatever the energy source, the two women agreed, the community should have to give its informed consent. “We’re not living in the 1870s anymore,” New Breast said. The Blackfeet have understood the potential of wind energy since the 1990s, when they scoped out a site at Duck Lake, north of Browning. Advocates of oil and gas like Running Crane saw no contradiction in embracing the idea, and even as he was bringing in tens of millions of dollars from new oil leases he was also working closely with Lawrence to promote wind power. Anything to generate some much-needed income. Lawrence started off modestly enough, developing plans for a 25- to 30-megawatt wind farm. (The commonly used formula—“enough to power X thousand homes”—is notoriously difficult to calculate, but such a project might serve about 10,000.) The tribal council took some persuading, but since Lawrence had her core funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, it eventually agreed to donate a site and pay for an anemometer. The average wind speed turned out to be 30 miles per hour, year-round, as good as it gets. In 2008 Lawrence began negotiations for a second project, with a company she described as “the big gorilla in the game” at the time (she declined to identify it, citing a nondisclosure agreement). This project would dwarf anything the Blackfeet had ever attempted: a wind farm producing as much as 1,000 megawatts, to be built in stages on multiple sites. If it had materialized, it might have been the biggest wind farm in the nation. “We had it all down,” Lawrence said, “the spreadsheets, the money worked out to the penny, the amount we would get.” But then the problems began, because pushing renewable energy in a place like this is easier said than done. What went wrong? Politics, for starters, said Running Crane. When the idea went before the tribal council, “it all went to hell.” As the national wind boom gathered momentum, other companies came sniffing around. Could
Montana ranks second in the nation (after Texas) in wind energy potential, and nowhere does the wind blow harder than on the Blackfeet Reservation
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