In a windswept corner of northwest New Mexico, Native Americans, tourists and archaeologists explore the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a quiet, ancient place.
But a very 21st-century fight is under way — over oil and natural gas development on the outskirts of Chaco Canyon. While the opposing sides have plenty of claims and counterclaims, the argument comes down to one question: How close is close?
Environmental groups and some — but not all — Native Americans nearby want to shut down drilling in the area that includes the San Juan Basin, one of the nation’s largest natural gas formations and a promising site for the crude oil business.
“It’s a fragile area,” said Eleanor Bravo, senior organizer of Food and Water Watch. “It’s one of the few UNESCO sites in the world. Once you open up those roads it will be the demise of Chaco Canyon. It is crumbling as we speak.”
But there is no drilling or development of any kind within the environs of the 53-square miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“I think it’s easy for people to misinterpret or misunderstand what the facts are out there,” Victoria Barr, district manager for the Farmington field office for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told Watchdog.org. “You always want to say, ‘We’re from the government, trust us.’ But sometimes that can be a little challenging.”
“There are absolutely no oil and gas activities within the border (of the park), nor is there any opportunity for there ever to be,” said Wally Drangmeister, vice president and director of communications at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “There’s no horizontal drilling (under the park) and there is no desire to do that as well.”
But there’s plenty of drilling outside the park. A big part of the argument focuses on the proximity of rigs in an area that still turns up archaeological artifacts from the Pueblo people who lived in Chaco Canyon between 850-1250 A.D.
A host of environmental groups and one Native American organization went to federal court last month to argue for an injunction to temporarily halt drilling in Navajo lands and the area around the Chaco historical park — including a combination of the federal government, the Navajo Nation, state and private land.
The plaintiffs wanted 265 recently approved applications by the BLM to be nullified, many within 20 miles of the site.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Browning denied the injunction.
“We don’t want any drilling anywhere,” Bravo told Watchdog.org in August. “It’s complicated because the land is so checker-boarded, but 20 miles (for a buffer zone) would be terrific. At least we could safeguard that area where the archaeologists believe would have artifacts.”
“There are existing leases within five, 10, 15 miles away (from the park), and those are valid leases with either the Bureau of Land Management, the State Land Office or in a lot of cases the Navajo allotees that are the owners of that land,” Drangmeister said.
Conventional natural gas was discovered in the San Juan Basin in 1921. In recent years, whenever natural gas prices go up the New Mexico economy enjoys the ride. A 10-cent increase in the price per thousand cubic feet translates into an extra $10 million to the state’s general fund, according to estimates.
In the past year a number of oil companies have moved into the San Juan, looking to use hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques in the Mancos Shale formation.
But due to the steep drop in worldwide oil prices, oil producers such as Canadian-based Encana have held off.
“We’re not drilling there right now,” said Doug Hock, manager of media relations at Encana, headquartered in Calgary with U.S. operations based in Denver. “With the commodity prices where they are, this year we have not put much capital into that asset … (But) going forward, we still see it as a good asset.”
Low oil prices have affected another part of the Chaco debate: A proposed 130-mile pipeline that would take crude oil from well pads and move it to a distribution center near Gallup, New Mexico.
The Piñon Pipeline was expected to carry 15,000 barrels of oil a day to start, but the company pitching the idea — Saddle Butte LLC in Durango, Colorado — has reportedly slowed the project’s timeline because of low oil prices.
Watchdog.org left messages with the company’s media relations office to confirm that but didn’t get a call back.
For years, trucks filled with crude have lumbered across the dirt roads and highways of northwest New Mexico, some going as far as 750 miles.
Supporters say the pipeline would reduce truck traffic and the air pollution that comes with it, while making San Juan companies more productive and efficient in the process.
“Pipelines are considered the safest way of transporting oil,” Drangmeister said.
But opponents say the pipeline would lead to a five-fold increase in development of the San Juan Basin, which means more hydraulic fracturing. They also complain it would be too close to Chaco Canyon, even though the majority of the proposed route goes through two neighboring counties.
“The canyon is not the only sacred site,” Bravo said. “There are artifacts and ruins all throughout that area that have not even been unearthed.”
But the process is lengthy. “At this point, we’re not even close to making a decision on that document,” Barr told Watchdog.org. “We don’t even have a draft of the environmental assessment yet.”
BLM has also initiated the long and complicated process of conducting an Environmental Impact Statement and forming what’s called a Resource Management Plan Amendment. The agency will decide whether “fluids and minerals leasing” should be permitted in approximately 1 million acres that includes BLM property within a 10-mile radius of the Chaco national park.
“We can’t keep holding on to something that’s not working, especially a state like New Mexico where we get a lot of our money for education from the oil and gas industry,” Bravo said. “Our lawmakers need to have some vision. We need to look for an alternative revenue stream. Extractive industries are hurting our tourism, our air quality, our scenic vistas.”
“A lot of times they talk about the ‘greater Chaco landscape,’” Drangmeister said. “If you use that term, that really encompasses the entire San Juan Basin … The opponents of oil and gas development in my opinion have used Chaco Canyon as a rallying cry, but when you dig a little deeper, the things they assign to that mean you have to go that extreme ‘greater Chaco landscape’ definition to have any credibility at all.”