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After decades of leasing the Steamboat Butte Field to a private company, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes have taken a “big step” toward sovereignty by reclaiming the oil field in Fremont County, Wyoming. 

The Steamboat Butte Field is located on the outer boundaries of the 2.2 million acre Wind River Indian Reservation, which is home to both tribes. There are 28 existing Class II enhanced oil recovery (EOR) injection wells in the field, according to the EPA.

The tribes officially reclaimed the oil field just after midnight on Jan. 1, 2023, after leasing it to Dallas-based Merit Energy Company, one of the largest privately held oil and gas firms in the nation. The tribes decided in December 2022 not to renew the lease with Merit.  

Instead, the newly formed Wind River Energy Commission (WREC) filed for transfer of operational control of the wells as part of its plan to oversee all operations and regulation of the Steamboat Butte Field. Because of the year-end timing, the EPA issued two temporary, emergency area permits for 26 of the wells; the permits do not cover two wells that are in an inactive “under construction” status, according to a federal notice.   

In the future, control and decision-making regarding development of mineral assets on the reservation remain with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho business councils. 

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“Reclaiming the Steamboat Butte Oil Field is a big step toward asserting sovereignty over Tribal mineral assets and taking control of our own economic future,” Chairman Lloyd Goggles of the Northern Arapaho Business Council said in a statement. “We look forward to responsibly developing these resources for the benefit of the Arapaho and Shoshone people.” 

Steamboat Butte is the second oil field the tribes have recently taken over from the previous leasing. On June 1, 2021, both tribes assumed complete control over the Circle Ridge Oil Field. 

The decision furthers the sovereignty of each tribe over their own resources. Currently, there are no other tribes in the nation operating their own oil resources without a lease mineral agreement. 

WREC member and Eastern Shoshone Vice-Chairman Mike Ute noted that their approach can be a model for other tribe’s to follow. 

“This is not only a major event for our people, but it’s also paving the way for tribes around the nation to look towards this as a model,” Ute said in a statement. “I can only hope that our people can look at these events through the lens of a business owner. There will be obstacles and bumps in the road, as with any business, but we all will do our very best to ensure it becomes and remains successful.” 

The Steamboat Butte Oil Field will be operated on a contract basis by MI3 Petroleum Engineering, a company based out of Golden, Colo., with a local office in Lander, Wyo.

MI3 currently operates the Circle Ridge oil field.