A thousand years ago, Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico was the center of a thriving culture. Massive multistory buildings called great houses rose against a dramatic high desert landscape of mountains and mesas. Chaco was the ceremonial and economic center of the San Juan Basin with some 400 miles of prehistoric roads linking it to other great houses in the region.

In some ways, it still looks like it did centuries ago.

“Right now, you can stand at Pueblo Alto, look north and see a landscape that is substantially the same as what the Chacoans saw,” said Barbara West, former superintendent of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

But that could be changing.

Chaco, a World Heritage Site, is surrounded by one of the most productive oil and gas basins in the United States. In 2012, San Juan County ranked No. 1 in natural gas production and fifth in oil production in the state. And now new drilling technology is making the region, once thought to be played out, attractive to oil and gas companies. Thousands of new wells are possible, some close to land that is sacred to Navajos and Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico.

Some like West worry that the experience of visiting the remote ruin of the center of the ancestral Puebloan world will be diminished by the sight of oil and gas rigs, flare stacks and tanker trucks kicking up clouds of dust on the long dirt road leading to the awe-inspiring national park.

Because of such concerns, the All Pueblo Council of Governors passed a resolution in April asking to be consulted on all management plans affecting its cultural properties.

Jemez Pueblo Gov. Joshua Madalena, whose ancestors helped develop Chaco, said recently, “We have sacred sites and places out there. We want to continue to keep them private. These are places of worship. It’s like our church. This is where we go and pray in our Native culture as we have done from time immemorial.”

Harry Walters, a Navajo anthropologist who still teaches part time at San Juan College, also feels uncomfortable about anything that disturbs the landscape, including oil and gas development in the area.

He said new archaeological evidence suggests Navajo and ancestral Puebloans lived side by side and that Navajos believe the air their ancestors breathed is still out there. “We say they are still there. When you tamper with these [things], there are grave consequences,” Walters said.

And Chaco figures in his culture’s ceremonial stories, like the one involving the great gambler who enslaved the Chacoan people until his brother risked everything to free them.

“People who passed on, their spirits are still there, in the land, the water, the sunlight. When we go there, we go with great reverence and caution,” he said.

Environmentalists warn new development could also contaminate groundwater, pollute Chaco’s dark skies and remote landscape, and even lead to higher crime rates and increases in domestic violence.

‘It should be done properly’

Nowhere is the threat to Chaco more evident than from the air. Earlier this month, Bruce Gordon, president of EcoFlight, an organization that advocates for the environment using small planes, flew over the area oil and gas companies are eyeing for the future. The tour was organized by the Partnership for Responsible Business, an educational arm of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, which works to promote businesses that protect our air, land and water.

After taking off from the Farmington airport in a Cessna 210, he first headed east over the circular fields where the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry grows Navajo Pride brand potatoes, corn, alfalfa, beans and small grains, such as barley, wheat and oats.

The plane then soared south through a cloudless sky over a landscape of mesas and washes dotted with wells and a spider web of roads, many of them leading to a single well pad.

Gordon pointed out ruins of some outlying great houses and then dipped a wing over Pueblo Bonito, the largest structure in the Chacoan system, located at the north end of the canyon. Occupied from the mid-800s to the 1200s, it was four stories high with over 600 rooms and 40 kivas.

“This area is relatively unexploited,” but eventually there could be oil and gas rigs within five or 10 miles of the historic sites, he said. Already in the area outside Aztec, and in Wyoming and Colorado, “I can’t fly 30 minutes in any direction without seeing wells and the industrialization of the land.”

According to Gordon, environmental organizations like his are trying to get out in front of the issue by educating people about what is at stake. “Nobody is against oil and gas, but it should be done properly,” he said.

12,000 active wells, 15,000 miles of roads

EcoFlight and another dozen or so environmental organizations are raising concerns now because the Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office is in the process of writing a resource management plan amendment that will determine what this area looks like in the future.

The office of the BLM manages federal lands in northwestern New Mexico stretching from the Colorado border to south of N.M. 550, east to Cuba and west to the Arizona line. The area also includes state and tribal lands and Indian allotments. And the federal agency oversees everything from grazing to recreation and wildlife as well as energy and minerals.

According to The Wilderness Society, 94 percent of the BLM’s mineral acres in the Farmington area are currently being leased; Gary Torres, the field manager for the Farmington Field Office, says the number is 85 percent.

Many of these leases have been held by production since the 1950s and ’60s. (A company can continue to hold a lease as long as its well is producing and it is paying royalties.)

Torres said there are now about 16,000 active wells in the area, down from about 25,000 to 30,000. And the landscape is crossed by some 15,000 miles of roads, according to the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce.

Drilling generates about a half-billion dollars in annual royalties, revenue that is shared between the state and the U.S. government. Prices are good for oil now, but not so much for dry gas.

Now game-changing technologies developed in recent years are making it cost-effective to extract hydrocarbons in places previously passed over in the Mancos Gallup Shale Play along the N.M. 550 corridor. The area around Lybrook and Counselor is booming.

WPX Energy and LOGOS Resources announced plans earlier this year to invest a total of $260 million in oil and gas production in the basin.

Encana, a Canadian company that is another big player in the San Juan Basin, has 176,000 acres under lease and plans to drill 45 to 50 net wells this year at a cost of between $300 million and $350 million. In 2013, it paid $6 million in severance taxes and this year will pay more, said Doug Hock, media relations director.

“This is one of our key areas of operation. Undoubtedly, we’ll have further capital to spend next year,” he said.

“It wasn’t as if they didn’t know hydrocarbons were there, but they didn’t know how to get them out of the ground,” Torres said.

Both hydraulic fracturing, a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals are pumped underground to break apart the rock and release the gas, and horizontal drilling — over distances up to a mile — are much more effective in extracting the minerals.

Though widely debated and often decried, they do have some benefits, Torres said.

Horizontal drilling, for example, allows companies to drill 20 wells from one well pad, which can help avoid damaging sensitive resources, Torres said.

One BLM study, he said, showed that the new technology reduced impacts on the surface by 10 percent and increased recovery of minerals by 10 times.

Amending the resource management plan

The Farmington Field Office, which has deferred some leases in the area, is now preparing an amendment to its 2003 resource management plan to address problems unforeseen a decade ago.

The BLM’s 4.2 million-acre planning area includes federal, state and private lands as well as Indian reservations within portions of San Juan, Rio Arriba, McKinley and Sandoval counties.

The decision area includes 1.3 million acres of BLM-managed surface plus 1 million acres of federal mineral estate beneath lands owned or managed by private owners, the state or other federal agencies. The 34,000 acres of Chaco Culture National Historical Park are already protected and off-limits to drilling.

A scoping period during which the public could voice its concerns about resource management concluded at the end of May. The office is now in what it calls the “alternative development stage,” during which a 20-member interdisciplinary team that includes biologists, botanists, engineers, recreation officials, visual resource managers, among others, is looking at ways to address the issues raised by the public. That process started about a month ago.

“We talked about the big picture in 2003, but this is like we need to do our homework and make sure we are doing the right thing,” Torres said.

By next summer, he said, the office hopes to have a draft environmental impact statement, which will analyze the alternatives. The public will have another opportunity to comment at that time. After reviewing the comments, the office will issue a determination. Once it signs a “record of decision,” that action will finalize the resource management plan amendment.

Many of those concerned about the new development had asked the BLM to also produce a master leasing plan, but Torres said the area did not meet the technical criteria because, for one thing, the federal government did not own the majority of land in the planning area. However, he said, the environmental impact statement will consider “all the same issues that the master leasing plan identifies.”

Several of the major players contacted about their business plans in the area did not return calls seeking comment.

Adverse impact

The Western Environmental Law Center, along with eight other groups, filed 105 pages of scoping comments on the resource plan amendment in May raising concerns about a new boom.

Although oil companies have repeatedly assured the public that the new technology is safe, the document cites numerous examples of harm it has wrought on the environment and human health.

Fracking, for example, caused methane contamination of drinking water and a explosion at a home in Brainbridge Township, Ohio. A fracturing fluid spill in Acorn Fork Creek in Kentucky resulted in a fish kill.

Fracking resulted in groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo., according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The scoping comments by the environmental groups also cited numerous cases in which it was believed that fracking triggered seismic activity, including a 2011 preliminary report by the U.S.Geological Survey linking fracking fluid injection to a series of earthquakes in Oklahoma.

The scoping comments cited a 2011 congressional report saying energy companies have injected more than 30 million gallons of diesel fuel or diesel mixed with other fluids into the ground nationwide between 2005 and 2009.

All this activity increases the chances of spills, leaks, transportation accidents and illegal discharges of wastewater. A spill near Greeley, Colo., last year by PDC Energy released 2,880 gallons of oil and covered 3,900 square feet, leaving groundwater contaminated with benzene at a concentration 128 times higher than the state limit, along with the chemicals toluene and xylene, the document said.

Fracking also requires thousands of round trips by heavy trucks transporting water and chemicals to drilling sites and waste away from the sites.

Another concern is something called a “frack hit,” which occurs when horizontal drilling and historic and active vertical wells meet, a situation that could lead to blowouts.

Environmentalists point out that the state is missing out on some royalties due to flaring, the burning off of excess natural gas.

Although the BLM says the gas is of poor quality and can’t go directly into pipelines, Western Values Project claims New Mexico taxpayers have lost more than $42.5 million in royalties since 2009 due to natural gas flaring and venting. They point out that in North Dakota, many oil and gas companies are supporting gas capture planning as a way to reduce excessive flaring.

Glenn Schiffbauer of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce said, “A valuable resource is just being burned. The BLM should pause and say, here’s a resource we can get royalties on.”

“A closer look at some of the economics motivating the oil and gas industry’s push for great production reveals sheer industry greed and speculation,” the scoping comments conclude. “The bottom line is this — energy companies have told us, ‘Trust us, our fracking ingredients and the process for extracting natural gas are harmless.’ We now know that they have not been truthful and cannot be trusted. Without implementation of a precautionary approach to these risks, BLM will continue to place the health of our community and our environment at risk.”

‘We deserve better’

Chaco, a remote site that records more than a half-million visitor days annually, is at the center of concern about adverse environmental impact from oil and gas drilling. Mike Eisenfeld, staff organizer at the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said during a recent trip to the area, he saw an active natural gas well roughly six miles north of the site. And one day there could be pump jacks within five miles of the ruin.

Besides compromising the sense of solitude there, development could interfere with one of the ways modern-day visitors connect with Chacoan people: Chaco, which has been designated as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, is one of the best places in the country to look up and see the same skies that inspired our ancestors.

“Once the night sky is washed out, then that connection between the people of the past and ourselves will be lost,” West said.

“Extensive development is incompatible with protection of the environment,” Eisenfeld said. “We deserve better with our heritage.”

Gov. Madalena, who got a bird’s-eye view of Chaco recently himself, said he is still hoping BLM officials will visit his pueblo and make a presentation about what’s coming. “Money isn’t everything,” he said. “We are rich in culture, traditions. I think that’s more important than anything, than drilling.”

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

(28) comments

Chris Roberts

Why must everything be about profit? This place should be off limits to anything that may cause damage to it or it;s surounding area. Chaco Canyon cannot be replaced. We need places like Chaco Canyon.

Barbara Cleaver

The New Mexican write an editorial about preserving Chaco Canyon.
But the editorial staff endorses Susanna La Tejana for Governor.

Do you really think that the oil and gas funded politician gives a damn about Chaco?

Alasdair Lindsay

Come on people, technology and renewables are the way forward for the 21st century. New Mexico is prime territory for exploiting this asset. As long as we continue to embrace this 19th and 20th century technology, our economy will stagnate. Humans have never been pro active in their thinking. We are reactionary, meaning that catastrophe needs to happen before we see the light. I, for one put a whole lot more faith in what scientists tell me over what comes out of the mouths of politicians or corporations.

Khal Spencer

Its all a matter of priorities. At some point, in order to keep oil and gas prices as low as the public demands, we will need to use secondary recovery techniques in more and more sensitive places. Choose your priorities. Will those reading this who have not been to a gas station lately please raise their hand?

Pat Shackleford

"Chaco, a remote site that records more than a half-million visitor days annually, "

That number suggests that about 1,350 people visit each day on average. Much higher than I would have guessed, for a tourist attraction with no rides or restaurants.

Comment deleted.
Pierce Knolls


thomas klepfer

So...they are flying around in a Cessna 210 burning avgas...high tech gasoline, made from petroleum of course...complaining about petroleum exploration, while advocating "for the environment using small planes". Typical hypocrisy.

Steve Salazar

During that bout of "climate change" some 800 years ago, the Anasazi abandoned Chaco, they decided that living was more precious than the stone walls that sheltered them.

In other words, life was the important thing.

Liberals need to take that lesson from the Anasazi, and heed it. The ruins are not what was important to them.

That said, of course, aren't there other places to frack? Come on already.

Kevin Durkin

Yours is a strange argument. The Anasazi left because it was a life or death situation. That is not the case now. Frack or no frack is not a life or death situation.

And you say that "living was more precious than their stone walls." Did you not read that Pueblo and Navajo peoples TODAY consider the structures and the entire area scared, and "the Navajos believe the air their ancestors breathed is still out there?"

And what does being a liberal have to do with any of this?

You're needlessly muddying the waters.

Steve Salazar

I don't think so. That is how liberals think, you must not be liberal.

Thomas Carlson

The upcoming election has been bought off by Big Oil and Gas. Both Repubs and Dems are taking black money from the Koch Brothers. THINK, people! Do we want our precious water, future economy, and our cultural heritage compromised by the exploiter class who are only in it for immediate profit?

97% of climate scientists say that we have to divest from fossil fuels. Last year solar became cheaper than coal to generate electricity in NM. Get active, folks.

Philip Taccetta

Absolutely correct Thomas! They're doing all this to profit from record sales of cheap oil and gas. They should not be drilling/fracking - especially near Chaco. The painful reality is that we're all going to have to pay a LOT more for gasoline - that's the only thing that will motivate people to change their ways - hit them in the wallet! Watch them line up for PV's on their roofs electric cars in their driveways, windmills on the horizon.....

Pierce Knolls

People won't behave the way you want them too? Then artificially inflate the cost of their failure to do things your way, it's the liberal way. After all, you obviously know what's best for everyone else, even if they disagree.

Karl Anderson

Pierce, everyone's entitled to your opinion, but for facts we rely on expertise. A privately-funded group headed by Henry Paulson (Treasury Secretary under GW Bush) has estimated the costs of human-caused climate change to include the following (tinyurl.com/acc-costs):

"If we continue on our current path, by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide..."

"By the middle of this century, the average American will likely see 27 to 50 days over 95°F each year—two to more than three times the average annual number of 95°F days we’ve seen over the past 30 years...Labor productivity of outdoor workers, such as those working in construction, utility maintenance, landscaping, and agriculture, could be reduced by as much as 3% by the end of the century, particularly in the Southeast."
"As extreme heat spreads across the middle of the country by the end of the century, some states in the Southeast, lower Great Plains, and Midwest risk up to a 50% to 70% loss in average annual crop yields (corn, soy, cotton, and wheat), absent agricultural adaptation [which carries its own costs]."

Of course these are estimates, and depend on the assumption that we continue on our current path. What's clear, though, is that much of the cost of climate change can be avoided if we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. That's what the facts tell us. Do you claim to know better?

Pierce Knolls

Karl, I don't have any problem with folks voluntarily switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but I don't think they should be manipulated or forced against their will to make that change. If you believe that your argument about the costs of climate change is compelling, then educating people about that problem should be enough to get them to make the switch voluntarily, right?

Karl Anderson

Pierce: "If you believe that your argument about the costs of climate change is compelling, then educating people about that problem should be enough to get them to make the switch voluntarily, right?"

Educating people about the external costs of fossil fuel use is necessary but not sufficient. As long as the cost of climate change is kept out of the price we pay for a tank of gas, a ton of coal or a cubic yard of natural gas, it's rational to keep using fossil fuels.

The market-based solution is a carbon tax on fossil fuels charged to producers at the mine, wellhead or port-of-entry. Producers would have to raise prices to consumers, internalizing the external costs. To keep American industry competitive and encourage other countries to follow our lead, the domestic tax should be coupled with a Border Tax Adjustment on imported goods based on the carbon emitted to make them. The tax should be revenue-neutral, for example by dividing the amount collected by the number of income tax payers and paying them an annual. Since energy use is correlated with income, or at least with home size, that would make the tax less regressive.

Internalizing climate change cost in the price of fossil fuels would make alternative energy sources more competitive. Market forces should then drive technology development and infrastructure build-out, until non-fossil-carbon energy is as cheap as coal, oil and gas-fueled energy is now.

For more info, see http://www.carbontax.org

Pierce Knolls

Karl, so in other words your argument isn't good enough to convince people to switch from fossil fuels to renewables like you think is best. Instead you want to manipulate them financially, using government's power to tax as a blunt instrument to beat the people into submission. And you justify that tyranical plan by claiming that you know what's best, despite the fact that you admit that you don't have an argument capable of convincing the plebeians of the rightness of your plan.

It's just easier to use government to bend the people to your will than it is to educate them, isn't it? Besides, it's extra hard to convince even educated people to sacrifice for the climate when they're still worried about unemployment, foreclosure, and hunger, and no one seems interested in using government as a tool to fix those problems.

Karl Anderson

Pierce, it isn't "my" argument. I accept the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change. Even if you don't, you're still responsible for the full cost of your fossil fuel consumption. The cost of ACC is being paid by everyone, even those who don't benefit from cheap fossil fuels, and the bill will keep getting bigger as long as you're able to avoid paying your fair share.

I have no problem letting you burn as much fossil carbon as you can afford, as long as the full costs are included in the price you pay. You can enjoy your freedom, and help to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy whether you understand climate science or not. That's the beauty of the market [wink]!

Pierce Knolls

Whose argument it is is hardly the crux of the issue. That fact is that enough people remain either unconvinced or unmotivated by the argument to voluntarily reduce their use of fossil fuels. I think that means that agw believers need to do a better job both of educating people about their climate concerns and of creating the economic conditions necessary to for people to easily afford to sacrifice for a better climate future. You, on the other hand, just seem to want to use government as a weapon to force non-believers to bend to your will.

Government coercion is violence.

Philip Taccetta

Pierce, the cost of gasoline and other petroleum products is artificially low. That is mostly due to politics. Europeans and many Asian countries have spent much more for fuel than we have for decades. That's one of the reasons they were first in producing vehicles that got reasonable gas mileage - something it has taken us decades to achieve. We never even tried until the first "oil crisis" in the early 70's. We are just now beginning to catch up.
As far as educating people, it seems to me just about half of the population knows what's going on - the other half is full of climate change deniers and dedicated Fox News fans right?

Pierce Knolls

It's true that gasoline in Europe is taxed much more than here in the U.S., but I think it would mean their gas prices are artificially high, not that ours are artificially low.

As far as the percentage of the population who wouldn't want their gas prices artificially raised to encourage a switch to renewables, I find your lack of faith in the argument in favor of battling climate change telling. If the arguments for renewables and the need to fight climate change were truly compelling, then you wouldn't need to use tax policy or some other price manipulation to force people to try things your way.

The first step towards fighting climate change is to create a robust economy wherein most folks feel secure about their jobs and homes, and folks have disposable income. Folks who are worried about getting laid off, losing their homes, or not being able to make ends meet are going to reject any energy policy that cuts into their earnings. Folks suffering from food insecurity right now don't care about a threefold increase in ninety-five degree days in 2050. Folks who've dropped out of the labor pool because they've given up on finding a job right now don't care about a 70% reduction in crop fifty years from now.

Khal Spencer

Fuel taxes per gallon in most of Europe are several dollars per gallon. Wiki quoted them as between 2 and 3 dollars per gallon in 2010. So indeed, the Europeans tax gas to make it artificially expensive and reduce consumption. They have been doing that for decades to reduce their reliance on foreign fossil fuels, esp. after the twin oil shocks of the 1970's. Thats one reason large, fuel-hogging vehicles in Europe are rare, unless you can afford the luxury.

Steve Salazar

Big oil and gas are trying to keep Geoff Rodgers from getting elected? I thought it was unions, who BTW, spend 56 cents of every dollar spent on election commercials.

Khal Spencer

What I think those 97% actually said is in a 2010 PNAS paper (PNAS vol. 107, no. 27, pp 12107-12109):

from the abstract:

"...an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98%of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers."

I've not seen 97% calling for divestment in fossil fuels, but I could have missed it.

Thomas Carlson

Yep, you missed it, Khal.

"There is a 97 percent consensus among scientists that humans are causing global warming and they know that if we are to have any hope of managing climate change, we must leave the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), makes it clear that burning fossil fuels at the current rate is incompatible with the kind of emissions reductions needed to curb climate change. To stay within the upper threshold warming limit, we will have to lower global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 40 to 70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. The report states that we will need to divest at least $30 billion dollars per year from fossil fuels over the coming decades."

Khal Spencer

So has that same 97% signed on to the divestment report?

Khal Spencer

What I see is that 97% agrees on AGW. No sign that the 97% have signed a petition for divestment. I would have thought that if such were the case, I could easily find it on the AGU Home Page.

Someone send us a literature reference.

Thomas Carlson

Khal, it's simple: 97% of climate scientists support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) supports divestment, ergo... 97% of climate scientists support divestment.

Get rid of your oil and gas investments, Khal.

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