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Oil Leases Proliferate in Northwestern New Mexico as Diné and Pueblo Call for Oversight

Unfettered oil and gas exploration in northwestern New Mexico is blighting the landscape and garnering opposition from Diné and Pueblo.
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Traffic roars along US Highway 550 on the Navajo Nation as the four-lane thoroughfare cuts through the tiny reservation towns of Counselor and Lybrook. Nearby, rigs churn and burn away, 24 hours a day, seeking to squeeze oil from the Mancos shale thousands of feet below. During the early stages of drilling, the rigs flare off gases, their flames stretching 30, 50 or more feet into the air.

“The land is just being trampled,” said Lori Goodman, a volunteer with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE), a nonprofit conservation group. “As one community member said, ‘We’re just being run over, and BLM is just allowing this to happen.’ ”

She was referring to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has approved about 100 new oil wells in the area known as the San Juan Basin over the past few years. Although the Navajo Nation has wells on its lands—predominately concentrated in San Juan County, Utah—Aktar Zaman, manager for the Navajo Nation Minerals Department, said the tribal government has no jurisdiction on the private lands along the reservation’s eastern border, where the new oil drilling is occurring. And while the new development can mean jobs, revenues and a boost to the local economy, it is also bringing woes and worries to some local communities.

Companies have drilled for natural gas for decades, but within the past two years, two main companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in oil exploration. But a lack of environmental oversight, the difficulty of gauging crime and enforcing laws, and the threat that drilling poses to the sacred Chaco Canyon are just some of the factors worrying Diné CARE. The nonprofit and several other environmental and heritage groups are calling for more studies and a slowdown in development.

Diné CARE has been around since the late 1980s, standing ground against coal-fired power plants, coal development and uranium mining on the reservation. But of late a new battle is emerging: concern about the burgeoning oil industry in a region that already supports tens of thousands of natural gas wells. Last year, NASA and University of Michigan scientists revealed that the oil and gas infrastructure and coalbed methane seams there are emitting a 2,500-square mile cloud of the methane. In fact, it’s the county’s largest “hotspot” of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

RELATED: Methane 'Hot Spot' Seen From Space Hovers Over Four Corners

The semi-trucks rolling in and out of the wellpad sites have ripped up the dirt and gravel roads that lead to remote chapters and homes, Goodman said. Residents are nervous about the flaring, and do not know what chemicals are being used during the hydraulic fracturing of wells. During that process, known as fracking, drillers inject a high-pressure mixture of sand, water and chemicals into the well formation to reach those fossil fuels trapped within tiny underground fissures.

Adding to the complexity and uncertainty, the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation is a checkerboard of state, county and federal land, tribal lands, and allotments deeded to individual Navajo families by the federal government in the late 19th century. The rules vary for each jurisdiction. Right now, drilling here is taking place on allotments, but with no regard to the effects on the surrounding landholders. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and tribal officials are not adequately overseeing the development or educating tribal members about its impacts, Diné CARE activists and environmental organizations say.

“They need to get out of their offices and get out here and take a drive!” said allottee Etta Arviso of BIA officials, “and see what’s going on with the community's safety.”

In many cases, one family can sell their lease and reap the payout, while those living nearby must deal with the traffic and noise, and the potential for water or air contamination or dangerous blowouts.

“Grandma and grandpa are selling their leases,” Goodman said, pointing out that many might not speak or read English or know the long-term implications of what they’re signing. “They get $60,000, $80,000. They’ve never seen money like that, and they’re not understanding the value even.”

Indeed, during the first six months of 2014, companies paid families in the area more than $72 million in so-called bonus payments for the rights to drill, she said, citing numbers she received from the Navajo Nation. That should be good news: money coming into a region with high poverty and low employment rates. But Goodman said the community isn’t prepared to manage the new wealth properly and that in addition, an influx of workers has boosted crime.

Those numbers are hard to pin down, however. When the FBI undertook a review of crime in northwestern New Mexico, based on anecdotal reports of an “increase in violent crime allegedly due to the influx of workers in the oil and gas industry,” according to media coordinator Frank Fisher, it did not find a rise in reported crimes. According to Fisher, the one exception was due to a jump in “traffic-related offenses” that likely stems from the increase of trucks and workers in the region.

And while the BLM is studying the impact of increased drilling in the area, it is not undertaking a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act. With an EIS, the BLM would also gather information on economic and social impacts of the drilling, in addition to possible impacts on wildlife, natural resources, real estate and archaeological resources in the area.

Diné CARE is not the only group calling for additional studies. So, too, are environmental groups, including the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club, among others. And in 2014 the All Pueblo Council of Governors, representing all of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and Ysleta del Sur in Texas, issued a proclamation asking the federal government to protect all archaeological sites and sacred properties associated with Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

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About 20 miles from the current epicenter of the oil development, Chaco Canyon Historical Site was designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site in 1987. The area was occupied by thousands of people between A.D. 850 and 1250, and sites within the boundary of the national park represent a unique style of monumental architecture.

But the Chacoan landscape, as archaeologists call it, encompasses thousands of sites and ancient roads spread across the landscape in northwestern New Mexico. For the Southwest’s puebloan people, that landscape represents a connection to ancestors and to the past.

“Chaco overall in general is a sacred site and a homeland to the pueblos, and especially to the Zuni people,” said Mark Martinez, a former tribal councilman with the Pueblo of Zuni. “We call that our spiritual place and part of our umbilical cord to our migration route. So that’s very important to us.”

In December, the BLM agreed to defer the sale of new oil leases close to the park. But that doesn’t mean development is slowing in the area.

At the end of 2014, Saddle Butte Pipeline, based in Durango, Colorado, applied for a permit from the federal government. It hopes to build a crude oil pipeline that would travel from Lybrook 130 miles south, through federal, state, private and Navajo lands, to rail lines along Interstate 40 in western New Mexico. The proposed pipeline would parallel an existing natural gas pipeline, and ramp up to eventually carry 50,000 barrels a day out of the Four Corners.

Holding meetings in Lybrook, Farmington and Santa Fe, the BLM sought public comment on the issue. At one particularly heated meeting in Santa Fe, local environmental activists and Navajos spoke passionately against the pipeline, as well as increased oil development in the region. A handful of men, including members of Pipeliners Local Union 798, spoke in favor of the pipeline, saying it would bring high-paying jobs to the area.

But as the night wore on, more and more people stepped up to the microphone, talking not only about the pipeline and oil drilling but also of environmental justice, and the coal mines and power plants that had come to Four Corners during the mid 20th century.

“We have people for generations living in that area, and that area has donated energy from the very beginning,” said Donna House, a Diné ethnobotanist and activist, who criticized the federal agencies and the Navajo Nation tribal government for not including citizens in the decision-making processes. “We have given up our energy, and we are still in poverty.”

A young Diné activist, Tina Garnanez, also spoke out against the pipeline at the meeting and said she did not believe that it would bring high-paying jobs to more than a few local workers.

“That’s great that you want a job, that’s great you want to pay for their college education, but what about my babies?” she asked. “What about asthma? What about cancer? What about all these ailments people in the Four Corners on the Navajo Nation suffer from due to uranium mining, coal-fired power plants, oil, gas? Let’s really think about this. Does this sound like a good idea? I don’t think so.”

She also spoke of the landscape: “That area might seem desolate, barren, but that’s what we Navajo people love about it,” she said. “That’s where we find peace, and quiet and harmony with the Earth.”

After extending the public comment period and holding additional meetings, the BLM closed the comment period on the pipeline at the end of January. All told, the agency received about 30,000 comments.

The agency’s Farmington District Manager, Victoria Barr, pointed out that transporting the crude oil by pipeline would reduce the truck traffic on Highway 550 and in local communities. She also said the agency appreciates all the comments it receives and that staff will review them during this scoping process.

After reviewing comments and studies, the agency’s decision makers will look carefully at any comments that are substantive, said Barr. Then, this summer, the agency will release an environmental assessment, and the public will have another opportunity to offer input.

“Ultimately the decision is still up to the federal agency, under the National Environmental Policy Act,” she said. “But part of that process is to take a hard look at the comments we receive. And just because a proponent has submitted an application for a right-of-way does not mean the decision will be to grant the right-of-way. It’s a process.”

Royalties and revenues from oil and gas drilling benefit the federal government and the Navajo Nation—and make up a significant portion of New Mexico's state budget. But the local communities and families often bear the direct burdens associated with development, whether that's traffic and noise or public health or environmental impacts. Thus more people must recognize, and take responsibility for, the global impacts of the fossil fuel industry, said Diné CARE’s Goodman.

“It’s time for people in Albuquerque [to realize], your children are impacted, it's your future, too,” she said, walking past piñon trees and sandstone outcrops and heading down from the top of a hill a few miles south of the highway, where at least four rigs mar the sweeping view. “You can't just think, ‘Oh, it's just happening to some isolated group of people.’ No, we all breathe the same air, and we all need to stand up and protect our environment. There are better ways of doing this. And this is not the right way.”