The Battle for Greater Chaco

The federal government seems poised to rubberstamp more fossil fuel development in northwestern New Mexico. Native communities are pushing back.

IN A NATIONAL PARK NORMALLY TEEMING with visitors, I walked amid ancient ruins for hours in complete isolation. Early morning breezes rushed along the sandstone walls of the multi-story ceremonial houses and kivas built by the people who lived in Chaco Canyon some 1,000 years earlier. The ancient Chacoans had abandoned these settlements, most likely due to a prolonged drought that spurred migration to less marginal environments. And now, so had the legions of tourists.

The reason for the current absence of humans in the park was grim. Covid-19 had forced Chaco Culture National Historical Park — a UNESCO World Heritage site — and the neighboring Navajo Nation into lockdown from sunset to sunrise, and Native Americans were dying there in a pandemic unparalleled since outsiders last introduced smallpox. A few visitors eventually dribbled into the park, braving New Mexico’s health order requiring out-of-state travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days. As a working journalist I was exempt, and I felt almost guilty about being so exquisitely alone in the magical ruins.

In late morning, the spicy pungence of sagebrush filled the air as towering, rain-laden clouds gathered across the endless horizon, a reminder that midsummer’s monsoon season was starting. It would soon turn the dirt roads that snake across the reservation into quagmires. Locals are accustomed to these storms, but another tempest has been lashing the region for ten years, rolling in from the northeast across the oil-and-gas-rich Mancos Shale formation of northwest New Mexico and wreaking havoc. Around 2010, lands once thought depleted of oil and gas suddenly acquired renewed potential when a technology called fracking was perfected and oilmen found they could squeeze proverbial blood from rock

Oil has long been the lifeblood of this arid country, as evidenced by the pumpjacks that dot the landscape like giant steel grasshoppers sipping from simple vertical wells on small pads. But about a decade ago when the first inexorable wave of fracking began surging across Greater Chaco — the broad 8,000-square-mile region in northwestern New Mexico with the namesake national park at its heart — it soon became clear that there was something altogether different about this relatively new kind of extraction.

Over the past decade, the construction of the wells and pipelines, along with the heavy traffic on dirt roads and the fossil fuel extraction itself have been rapidly degrading this high-desert landscape.

Instead of leaving small footprints, oilmen were bulldozing vast swaths of land, scraping away all vegetation and destroying fragile ecosystems. They were drilling much more elaborate wells with more equipment and manpower than local Navajos (or Diné, as they call themselves) had ever seen. Over the past decade, the construction of the wells and pipelines, along with the heavy traffic on dirt roads and the fossil fuel extraction itself — over 22,000 active oil and gas wells are currently releasing methane and other noxious fracking byproduct gases into the air — have been rapidly degrading this high-desert landscape. (The notorious hotspot, straddling the Four Corners area and covering some 2,500 square miles including Greater Chaco, harbors the largest concentration of methane in the United States.)

After years of efforts to halt further fracking in the region, Native American activists and conservation groups thought they had won a reprieve last year when an appeals court held that the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the region’s primary caretaker of public lands, improperly approved drilling in the Greater Chaco region. But it now appears that the pro-industry Trump administration is all set to open up the region to further oil and gas extraction.

“I GREW UP HERE ALL MY LIFE, and you notice when things change,” recalls Kendra Pinto as we sit, six feet apart and masked against Covid-19, on a stone church wall half a mile from US Route 550. It is the main artery running north-south through the Navajo Nation’s Eastern Agency (there are a total of five agencies dividing the Nation, which stretches 27,413 square miles across northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southeastern Utah), connecting Albuquerque to northwest New Mexico’s main town of Farmington. Chaco park sits 21 miles west of the highway, at the end of a remote string of gravel and dirt roads.

The Nageezi Chapter of the Navajo Nation’s Eastern Agency suffered explosions and fires at a fracking installation a few hundred feet behind homes in mid July 2016. The land here is so divided among federal, state, tribal, and individual Native owners that the region is simply called the Checkerboard.

Kendra Pinto of Diné CARE stands beside one of several protest signs (“dooda” means “no” in Navajo) that she and colleagues erected along US Route 550 in Greater Chaco.

The BLM’s new guidelines will allow up to 3,000 more frack wells in the Greater Chaco region.

In 2014, after a three-year stint in Chicago during the early years of the frack boom, Pinto, who is in her 30s, returned home to a changed world. By then, petroleum trucks and fracking crews were crawling across the land.

“There was more noise, there was more traffic. What got my blood boiling was when I went on my favorite horse trail from my house. It’s beautiful there. You can see everything — all the way to Fajada Butte in Chaco park. In 2015, they cleared out a big section right in the middle of the trail, five acres. They even cleared the rare Clover’s cactus [a species once proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act].”

Pinto had little recourse. The land behind her house is owned by the BLM. It is a predicament shared by many Diné in the Eastern Agency where land is so divided among federal, state, tribal, and individual Native owners that the region is simply called the Checkerboard. She demanded justice, joined a group called Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (Diné CARE), and eventually found herself testifying before Congress.

Meanwhile, the BLM’s regional office in Farmington saw that it was unprepared for rampant drilling across the Checkerboard’s confused mélange of borders. In 2014, the agency announced a retooling of its overall land management plans (called a Resource Management Plan, or RMP) based on a new environmental impact statement (EIS). It continued to license drilling under the old RMP until the new RMPA (the “A” stands for amendment) could be developed, which proved to be a bad decision.

The BLM’s draft amendment made it clear that the agency has little interest in slowing oil and gas development in the region.

In May 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit responded to a suit brought by environmental organizations, including Diné CARE, and ruled that the BLM was issuing drilling permits in Greater Chaco using obsolete guidelines that failed to consider the cumulative impacts of fracking. Drilling permits were overturned and the court ordered the BLM back to the drawing board, setting a precedent for all future assessments. Native Americans and conservationists thought they had put the brakes on unshackled oil and gas drilling in Greater Chaco. But their hopes were dashed in February this year when the BLM finally released a draft of its long-awaited amendment to the land management plan, the RMPA. The draft made it clear that the agency has little interest in slowing oil and gas development in the region.

The RMPA, originally scheduled for final public hearings this past May, offers five sets of progressively more aggressive development regimes, called “Alternatives.” Environmental and Native rights groups point out that regardless of which Alternative is adopted (and with 92 percent of BLM lands already leased), the new guidelines will allow up to 3,000 more frack wells.

The BLM agrees with that assessment. “That’s accurate across the board for any of the Alternatives,” says Sarah Scott, the BLM’s project manager for the new RMPA. “It varies by 100 or so, but those numbers are correct.”

Critics of the draft plan say it is at odds with the agency’s own initial “scoping report” — based on 10 public meetings from October 2016 to February 2017 — which had promised the RMPA would, among other things, take into account the cumulative impacts from the 37,000 existing oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin region, and address its climate impacts as well as tribal concerns about the Chaco cultural landscape and public health and safety.

As far as Navajo Nation Councilmember Daniel Tso is concerned, the entire 1200-page RMPA is a ruse. “Petroleum engineers, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists submit documents and say, ‘Oh, everything’s fine. We won’t harm anything.’ And it goes through every time. Every time. We’ve made protest comments, but it doesn’t have any effect. It’s been a farce since the 2003 RMP – and the new RMPA is just an amendment.”

Final town hall hearings on the RMPA were rendered impossible by strict stay-at-home health orders in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, but the BLM was undeterred. Rather than postponing last May’s hearings, the agency held them “virtually.” But given the notoriously poor cyber connectivity on the reservation, the very people most affected by the RMPA could barely participate. Most comments came from non-Natives angrily protesting that hearings were being held under such circumstances. Again, the BLM agrees.

“I don’t think we had a great representation from the communities out there,” says Scott, “so I would not base the opinions that we heard during those virtual meetings as a full reflection of how the communities feel that are potentially impacted by the decisions that we’re making.”

After stonewalling a raft of protests from tribal leaders and New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation throughout spring, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt relented in late May and granted a four-month extension of the public comment period until September 25. However, with the Navajo Nation still under a prolonged lockdown and suffering from one of the worst per capita rates of Covid deaths in the US, most of the community has little time or energy to send in their comments. Families are preoccupied with just staying alive and hauling enough water for proper sanitation (only about 70 percent of Diné homes have running water).

According to Scott, additional comments have been forthcoming, but she indicated that such opinions might not have much sway.

“If 500,000 people wrote us a letter and said, ‘We hate Alternative A’— that’s not substantive,” Scott says. To be substantive, she explains, a comment must identify a significant factor that the BLM missed. “Not that we ignore that input, but it’s not taken into consideration to further develop the analysis in the document.”

The agency expects to issue the final approval of the RMPA in early 2021.

DRIVING HIS WHITE PICKUP TRUCK across the bumpy backcountry roads of the Nation’s Counselor Chapter, Daniel Tso points out frack site after frack site, occasionally waving to people at work hauling water or towing livestock wagons behind their pickups. Tso is chair of the council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, and represents several of the Nation’s chapters including Counselor. (Chapters are political subdistricts of the Navajo Nation). As a former rodeo cowboy, he is well known here, but his biggest challenge these days is taming the unharnessed development that is riding roughshod across his community’s lands.

A crusty septuagenarian, Navajo Tribal Council member Daniel Tso heads the Greater Chaco Coalition — a group of more than 200 tribal, environmental, and community organizations fighting for Greater Chaco protections.

Tso and Mario Atencio of Diné CARE (middle) study a map of oil leases in the Nation’s Eastern Agency.

“I’ve had grandmas tell me, ‘I thought these leases were for the old style. Straight down. I thought we’d be like what we see in the John Wayne movies. Oil comes gushing out and everyone gets wet with that black oil. I wouldn’t have signed if they would have told me that there’s gonna be thousands of trucks going by my house every day.’”

The crusty septuagenarian also heads the Greater Chaco Coalition — a group of more than 200 tribal, environmental, and community organizations fighting for Greater Chaco protections. “Five or six elderly community members came to us and said, ‘We’ve got to do something, will you help us?’” Tso says, recalling the coalition’s origins in 2015. “So we went back to the community and asked permission to go to the outside. There were only a few of us, and our knowledge base and influence was small, but we knew that if we could go to the outside, it would get bigger.”

One of the first people at the very next meeting was from Diné CARE, and then came an intern with Sierra Club and another from WildEarth Guardians. Soon after, they launched the Citizens’ Science committee to do health impact assessments of people living close to oil and gas wells in Counselor.

From the environmental groups they learned more about how horizontal multistage fracturing, or fracking, can drill one mile deep and two miles sideways, then crack open deep shale strata using a mixture of sand, pressurized nitrogen, and chemically laced water that magically coaxes previously inaccessible gas and oil to the surface. The briny and potentially radioactive water (called produced water) that emerges from extraction zones is mixed with a proprietary cocktail that is pumped back underground to fracture more shale. They learned that the mix of noxious gases these rigs release into the air can cause several serious health impacts — including birth defects, blood disorders, and cancer — in people living close to fracking sites. And that the produced water, sometimes stored in large tanks resembling huge swimming pools across the sagebrush outback, can sometimes contaminate local water bodies and wells.

‘We see things that aren’t right happening, but nobody else sees them because we are the only ones out here.

Through Sierra Club and Earthworks, a mineral and energy industry watchdog group, the committee obtained air monitors and infrared cameras to monitor methane emissions violations from frack wells, and members, including Pinto, began gathering air quality samples. While the data from these health and air quality surveys are being compiled and expanded, the campaign led to the creation of Counselor’s Community Empowerment Project to document a paper trail of oil and gas well violations.

“We see things that aren’t right happening, but nobody else sees them because we’re the only ones out here,” says Pinto. “It’s creating a trail that we can refer to in case something happens.”

The group has also called attention to the hazards posed by produced water. No one outside the industry knows what is actually in recycled produced water. Like Coca Cola, frack recipes are federally protected as industrial secrets. But according to veteran oilman John Alexander, vice president of Dugan Production Corporation in Farmington, most wells in the San Juan Basin surrounding Farmington and Chaco are fracked since the rock is so impermeable, and he contends it is all very safe. “We get that you don’t want to pollute the water zone, and we take a lot of steps to avoid that. You’re not going to pollute water unless you make a huge mistake,” says Alexander, whose father pioneered the wells of West Texas a century ago.

The Chaco Canyon area hosts a few rare plant species like this Clover’s cactus, once a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

It also is home to a variety of wildlife such as elk, deer, bobcats, wild horses, snakes, and many bird species.

But mistakes happen. In one instance a few years ago, 50,000 gallons of produced water spilled into an arroyo leading straight into Chaco park. Many Diné like Mario Atencio, whose family owns the affected lands, are still fuming, and not just about possible groundwater contamination.

“They’ve created a gulley here that’s already 15 feet deeper, and that’s caused the water table to drop,” says Atencio. “The range in front of us is prime grazing land because the water table is shallow, only 50 feet. But this is being ruined. My grandma used to run 30 sheep and 20 goats here.”

As a board member of Diné CARE, Atencio has been fighting oil companies and the BLM for years. Despite his best efforts, deep divisions about oil and gas development still pit neighbor against neighbor in some Diné communities. In 2016, an oil installation in the community of Nageezi caught fire, sending explosions of billowing black smoke skyward for days. Remarkably, many in that community remain steadfastly in support of new drilling.

This paradox has deep historical roots. In 1887, the US Congress passed a divide-and-conquer scheme called the Dawes Act that was designed to compel Native Americans to abandon communal land ownership by dividing reservations into “allotments” and assigning them to individuals. By law, allottees retain mineral rights, and sometimes enjoy lucrative royalties from oil companies.

With federal parcels abutting so many allotments, restraints on BLM lands can impact an allottee’s financial prospects by curtailing drilling access. That makes allottees nervous about any federal restrictions. More often than not, however, allotment checks are divided among so many heirs that they become nearly worthless. A $2,000 royalty can quickly dwindle to virtually nothing while environmental and health threats remain onerous for everyone.

Standing beside the frack well installation overlooking the gypsum-white arroyo called Escavada Wash, Atencio wistfully gazes toward a white-and-black banded mesa several miles distant. In his eyes, sacred lands do not end at a national park’s borders. Indeed, Chacoan roads, greathouses, villages, sacred sites, and other places of significance are scattered across this land, and many of them have ties to other well-known cultural sites such as Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients, and Bears Ears.

Exploring a greathouse at Chaco Canyon from Randall Hyman on Vimeo.

“This is the Greater Chaco landscape, but what you’re not seeing are the cultural resources,” Atencio says. “That’s a sacred peak over there, and those are sacred mountains where medicine people once made pilgrimages to fill their watering bags. There are pre-Columbian roads and great houses that have yet to be discovered here, and they are destroying all this.”

GIVEN THE RMPA IS ON TRACK for approval early next year, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné CARE, and others have joined with public interest law groups to fight the BLM in court as they successfully did in 2019. While further challenges are working their way through the courts, the state land office weighed in last year by withdrawing all state lands from mineral leasing within 10 miles of Chaco park. A similar bill has been introduced in the US Congress regarding the corresponding federal lands, but prospects for passage in the present Senate are slim.

The effort to protect Greater Chaco and its people, however, might have some help from an unexpected quarter: the energy market itself. With Covid-depressed oil prices offering little incentive to drill, oil companies are in no rush for new permits.

Even before Covid-19 hit, the shale oil industry was teetering on the edge of failure.

“At $20 a barrel, you can’t afford to drill,” says oilman John Alexander. “And at $40 you can just barely make it. That’s probably where it’s going to stay for a while. But if [Saudi Arabia’s] King Fahd has a bad hair day, he could make it go to twenty bucks again by moving his little finger. Right now, there’s not a single rig out there. Zero, zip, nada.”

Fact is, even before Covid-19 hit, the shale oil industry was teetering on the edge of failure, says Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks. Even at last year’s price of less than $50 per barrel, many companies couldn’t pay their bills, Krill points out.

Indeed, more than 200 oil and gas companies have gone under since 2014, and the sector’s stock market performance is the worst of all among Standard & Poor’s sectors. And according to a recent Bloomberg report, banks wrote off approximately $1 billion in reserve-based loans for shale companies in 2019, exceeding their total losses for the past 30 years. Now the very banks that propped up this industry for years are questioning its future.

But activists like Pinto, Tso, Atencio, and others aren’t waiting for the markets to save their ancestral lands. Fed up with empty promises, Tso says, “We want a brand-new Resource Management Plan, not an amendment, because in 2003 they got the whole playing field.” Pinto, too, is adamant about pushing for radical change. “They’ve always put a price tag on our forehead, and just expect us to be quiet, ” she says. As we walk from the churchyard toward one of the bold protest signs she and colleagues erected along busy US Route 550, it is clear that for the people fighting to protect Greater Chaco, staying quiet is simply not an option.

Reporting for this feature was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism.

A version of this article is also appearing in Truthout.

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