COUNSELOR, NM—The night Daniel Tso was driving home from a traditional Navajo ceremony to mark his granddaughter reaching puberty, a light caught his eye, silhouetting a hillside along NM Hwy. 550. Since oil and gas development took off in the Four Corners area years ago, its beacons appear constantly. Tall white towers of drilling rigs catch the baking noon sun. Flames from flares draw the eye out over the tops of arroyos and piñóns at dusk and dawn. At night, when operators are working to drill new wells, lights illuminate the well pads so brightly that they etch the bluffs behind them out of the darkness, drawing their ridges and folds in black-and-white relief.
Tso turned off onto one of the deeply rutted county roads that meander back into the Navajo tribal lands and chased the light to where a recently drilled well was flaring natural gas, the torchlike flame springing up 3 feet off the ground. He stepped out of his white pickup truck and walked toward the well pad, the smell of burning methane thick in the air. Grease and smoke covered his skin, soaking his clothes and hair in a scent that followed him back into his truck.
A couple weeks later, he drives past that well again, with me in his passenger seat. The flare, still burning away gas deemed unworthy of capture, is candle-sticked away from the ground by a roughly 20-foot pipe; the lights are gone, and the day-to-day hum of pulling petroleum out of the ground is under way. A chemical smell lingers in the air.
Tso has made a point of watching the development, of knowing his way around the back roads that lead to the latest well sites. In July, we ride for hours among the wells, on the same routes that school buses take, often jostled to the point that my notes were rendered illegible. There’s a sense that someone has to serve as witness to what’s happening out there, and the former Navajo councilor feels that burden comes to him.
That tribal lands sit in the heart of what has for decades been declared an “energy sacrifice zone” by the federal government has long struck him as a bit of a contradiction. The environmental integrity of this area has been sacrificed to harvest the coal, oil and gas that lie beneath it, and yet many of the Native homes that sit atop it go without electricity or running water. Their landscapes, roads and resources have fallen under the ax of someone else’s basic comforts.
For decades, multinational, billion-dollar energy companies have been pulling oil and gas from the region’s patchwork of federal, state, private and tribally owned land, the management of which falls to a tangled array of federal agencies.
Some of the bobbing heads of oil derricks date to the 1950s or before. But in the mid-2000s, the game changed when Encana Oil & Gas drilled the first horizontal well in the San Juan Basin and used hydraulic fracturing, a process of shooting a high-pressured mix of water, sand and chemicals into wells dug far into oil shale formations, to loosen up the fossil fuel reserves there. Oil and gas gushed forth. For the first time, extracting those reserves was seen as economically viable. Oil company land agents started visiting the reservations, and legal notices of oil and gas lease auctions by the Bureau Land Management ran in local papers. Increasingly, Navajos were asked for permission to drill wells on their land. After an initial payment for access, they also receive monthly royalties based on how much is flowing up out of those wells.
The fractures forming now are not between those who live on these tribal lands and those who live in remote cities that never sleep, fueled by oil, gas and coal that comes from Navajo country. The crack is between neighbors.
Federally granted allotments of land, handed out in the early 1900s, mean that some families have a stake in the ongoing extraction and benefit financially from it. But allotments weren’t awarded to everyone. If a family was out collecting firewood or fetching water and not at home when the federal agent came by, they didn’t get an allotment. Decades later, that means they’re not getting the royalty checks that are buying new trucks for their neighbors and adding on to their homes.
The situation is worrying, Tso says, at least in part because the environmental and health effects of fracking (which are still unclear; a major study by the National Science Foundation that may address these issues is due out in 2018) will exact a price on everyone, whether they get paid or not.
“They endure the same thing. They endure the same flares from the gas, they endure the foul smell, they endure the heavy traffic,” Tso says.
“Right now, there’s a definite split, a definite division between community members,” says Samuel Sage, community services coordinator for the Counselor Chapter, one of more than 100 regionally placed administrative and community centers for tribe members that serve as a venue for providing input to their delegates to the Navajo Nation’s governing body. He looks north from the chapter house, toward lands where the Navajo origin stories say people emerged as humans. The whole landscape has been a place for ceremonies, for collecting medicinal plants and for the homes of animals charged with guarding the land and, perhaps curiously, what lies beneath it.
“As far as the impact, it has been quite drastic, and there’s also been a lot of damage done,” Sage says.
Instead of transparency and easily available information, he says, allottees have been met with secrecy and rebuffed when requesting information.
“Allottees signed a lease for exploration, but it ends up being everything, all the way down to fracking,” he says.
Though the drop in the price of oil means many of the drilling rigs that mark expansion have packed up and gone, people still complain of odors from operating wells, the damage to existing roads and the cobweb of new roads crisscrossing the desert. The roads connect children to schools, chronically ill patients to health care services and those without public water to clean drinking water, Tso says. They are lifelines.
Though chapter houses in Ojo Encino, Counselor and Torreon/Star Lake have issued resolutions calling for drilling and fracking to cease until an environmental impact study is conducted and the BLM’s resource management plan for the area is revised, the Navajo Nation has not issued an official response to the increasing oil and gas development in tribal lands.
Environmental groups have taken up the cause, suing the BLM to stop issuing leases and permits for oil and gas development and drawing national attention to the extraction industries encroaching on Chaco Culture National Historical Park, home to a network of Puebloan cities that once housed thousands of people.
The area is sacrosanct to the Native people, but it’s a totem for the rest of America, too. Just how close will we drill to a sacred history? To a network of roads that run arrow straight for a hundred miles from the ancient cities in which they originate? Will we build well pads over the top of archaeological remains of a civilization whose mastery of astronomy and far-reaching trade network we’ve only begun to understand? What price do we pay for progress in the currency of our own history, and how much of the success of future generations do we gamble to boost the bottom line today? It was one thing when oil and gas companies were demanding prairie in Colorado or farmland in Pennsylvania, desert in Texas or rough badlands of North Dakota. But to encroach on Chaco, a cultural treasure, seems to hit a national nerve.
"You’ve got laws to protect historic Chaco, but the current living culture is unprotected, and that’s where we’re
trying to make an impact."
Tso talks about the fracking tsunami, a tidal wave that has swept over the people, leaving no escape route. Oil production in San Juan County jumped from just over 1 million barrels per month in January 2010 to 2.6 million in January 2014, though the slowdown reduced that closer to 2 million by January 2015.
He drives up the canyons near Counselor and passes multiple clusters of half a dozen or more tanks collecting oil and gas, only football-field lengths apart from one another. His path winds among rural homes, some multiple-story houses with new cars at the front doors and others with tarps working to seal their trailers against the elements. But sometimes, the price of having a nice house is a well pad 150 yards from the front door.
“You’ve got laws to protect historic Chaco, but the current living culture is unprotected, and that’s where we’re trying to make an impact,” Tso said during his comments at a July event in Santa Fe to raise awareness about fracking in the greater Chaco area.
Cattle graze among the well pads, and the occasional set of horses wanders through. Tanks and drill rigs sit atop sandstone bluffs.
The Lybrook Mercantile and Laundromat is now shuttered, and at a combination café, jewelry trading spot and mechanic’s shop, a hand-painted sign facing the highway reads simply, “Sorry.” The New Mexico Oil & Gas Association touts the 30,000 jobs and $6 million in taxes and royalties the industry pays to state and local governments, and officials in the Gov. Susana Martinez administration credit the industry with directly or indirectly creating 68,800 jobs, or 9 percent of all jobs statewide. But at times, it’s hard to see where the oil and gas money is going in these towns. Most of the locals Tso knows who’ve gotten jobs didn’t get the high-paying spots on rigs; because they knew the roads and how to handle them, they got jobs driving trucks.
Dusty roads carry us out to a stretch of desert quiet in a way that only a desert can be—nothing but the sound of the breeze running over the sage, except for the distant clinking of an oil rig.
We’re at the southern reaches of oil and gas development in the area, though there are well pads that come closer to a 5-mile buffer zone around the boundary of Chaco park. The washes we pass drain right into Chaco. Maybe they won’t drill in the park itself, but anything that spills onto the soil (and the industry reported more than 1,000 spills in New Mexico just between January and September of 2014) could be carried by rain right into the park. From the top of some of the hills, Chaco’s Fajada Butte (home to a petroglyph that a sliver of sunlight slices through on the winter solstice), can be seen in the distance.
Across the hood of his truck, Tso spreads a map of the allotments and a folder of paperwork he’s received about a proposal from a company called WPX that wants to drill on his allotment this fall. In addition to notice of WPX’s application for exemptions to existing regulations, he’s also been told his share of the payout for this allotment: $9.87 per month, for now. He’ll also get some share of the royalties when oil and gas begins flowing, and the higher the price of oil, the higher his payment.
“A lot of [allottees] say they understood what the fracking and all this was about, so they tried to warn others not to sign. A lot of them said they didn’t sign it because they don’t agree with it,” says Sarah White, an activist with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and an allottee. “Of course, [oil companies are] flashing the dollar signs in front of their eyes, so what can these people do?”
Some people fight for the development, she says, and some people fight against it.
“They want their backyard fracked so they can get money, and they’re not thinking about the next generation. They’re not thinking about 50, 100 years from now,” she says. “What’s their water going to be like? That water is going to be still contaminated, and there’s not going to be any place for their kids or great-great-grandkids to survive…I’m looking out for 200 years from now when the water is going to be nothing but oil.”
At the July 15 Oil Conservation Division hearing to consider WPX’s request for 12 new leases (11 of which were on allotted Indian land), the back rows of the room were lined with allottees, largely concerned with how these new leases would affect their royalty payments.
“They should go ahead and do it because the people need money,” Lawrence Monte, who lives on the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation west of Albuquerque, told SFR after the hearing. “Nobody lives in that area. It’s already drilled. It’s already there.”
The concept of fracking dates to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, but it took most of a century to hone to the point that it began making removing oil and gas from shale formations a profit-making enterprise. Only in the last decade did horizontal drilling techniques and fracking advance to the point that it became profitable to angle for the oil in the San Juan Basin. During that evolution, the process has become more energy-intensive and requires more trucks, more chemicals and more water.
“What’s happening right now is unlike anything that’s ever happened there before. The intensity is larger, and it is encroaching into places that haven’t been as heavily developed,” says Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians. “It’s like oil and gas development on steroids.”
The nonprofit is among several organizations calling for an injunction against further oil and gas development while the Bureau of Land Management works to update its resource management plan for the area to account for drilling on this scale.
“The BLM itself has acknowledged that this is different stuff and they have never contemplated this kind of development happening in the San Juan Basin,” Nichols says. “Because they didn’t expect this kind of industrial development, they’re basically implying their plan is inadequate.”
The feds say they are working to bring the plan up to speed, but in the meantime, they’re continuing to issue oil and gas leases and permits.
“It’s an incredible disconnect. On the one hand, they’re saying, ‘Our plan is inadequate,’ then on the other, they’re issuing permit after permit,” Nichols says. “This is like allowing somebody to build a skyscraper before they’ve gotten a building permit.”
That court battle is ongoing, but the argument from the federal government in these instances has been consistent across states: To revoke permission to drill on leases would be considered a taking, an inappropriate seizure of private property, under the US Constitution. So the BLM continues with business as usual.
Prices for crude oil dropped below $40 per barrel in August, sparking conversations on whether at that price, American production would slow, it no longer being cost-effective to run most wells. Leasing has slowed, energy analysts say, but much of the land was leased already, and it’s just a question of finding ways to increase production from those leases, meaning more horizontal drilling, and more fracking.
WPX, one of the key players in the San Juan Basin’s oil and gas industry, acknowledges their relationship with the area is evolving.
“We feel like it’s a really good transition time for us,” says company spokeswoman Susan Alvillar. “Down here until three years ago, our play was dry gas…It was kind of a sleepy little asset producing gas until we started exploring down south.”
South is where the reserves transition to oil, and where the development pushes closer to Chaco. The price of oil means dry gas continues to be worth considering, but the oil may entice the company to further invest in the region and install infrastructure there. Bottom line: they’re not planning to go away any time soon.
Clad in flame retardant coats, hard hats and eye protection, we climb onto a drill rig where a team is lowering pipe into a hole more than a mile deep. From the “doghouse,” the one enclosed space that’s not a trailer or a truck cab on the pad, the drilling superintendent monitors weight on the bit, torque and flow of mud, the mix of water, sand and chemicals used to keep the gas down the well, cool the bit and haul broken rock and soil chewed up by the drill bit back to the surface. Our tour of the rig takes us over the container of mud, a frothy, chocolate-milk colored brew that smells vaguely like paint. Some 240 people will pass through the rig over the course of completing a well; one big team, the drilling superintendent says, that works together to “make it happen for WPX.”
WPX and other energy companies working in New Mexico got a clear message from Gov. Susana Martinez on Sept. 14, when she released an energy plan for the remaining three years of her term in office. She outlines an “all of the above” approach—but especially for making the most of the state’s oil and gas reserves. The plan calls for a new rail line to be built to move natural gas from the Four Corners region to markets across the West and Midwest, and for restrictions preventing the export of crude oil to be lifted so the market and the price per barrel both have room to grow. Her report also asserts that the state should have regulatory primacy over permitting oil and gas to streamline a process some activists already refer to as a rubberstamped approval.
When the rigs are gone and the gas and oil declared fully tapped, reclamation is the company’s responsibility. They cap the well head, often with cement, and remove everything from the pad. What’s left is a water-stained block of bare earth, beaten hard by truck traffic and industrial activity. Daniel Tso and I walked over a couple of them, finding a lid loose on one well head and the area a particularly barren slice out of hillsides streaked in purple, green, copper, black and brown.
In the give-and-take of royalties for development, standing on the middle of that hard-packed platform, it feels like there’s more take than give.
“This is the way that it’s progressing. The leases have been signed, the approval has been given, but the one thing—how do we mitigate the adverse impacts, the heavy traffic, the health and safety of the people?” Tso asks.
In the Navajo tradition, there’s a story that the great-grandfathers put reserves in the ground to save for generations to come.
“Someday, when that generation needs it, they can use it, and it’s not for us to use,” Tso says. “That particular story, we’re setting it aside and taking the money now. Why do we need it now? When we bring it above ground, we bring a lot of the unsafe, unnatural things, and right now, keeping it in the ground is the safest storage place.”
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