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.
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 email@example.com.