The Navajo and Puebloan lands of north-western New Mexico are no stranger to drilling. The first oil well in the area was reportedly drilled in 1911 with natural gas following soon after. Fracking requires pumping sand, water and chemicals deep underground and then horizontally, breaking through rock formations to release oil or gas, making it more destructive than traditional, vertical wells.
Today, the US Bureau of Land Management is considering a plan, known as the Mancos-Gallup Amendment, which could lease land in the region for some 3,000 new wells – many of which would be for fracking oil and gas. The plan would expand drilling into some of northern New Mexico’s last available public lands, threatening the desecration of sacred Native artefacts near Chaco Canyon, a network of historic archaeological sites that today hold Unesco world heritage status and are of spiritual importance to Navajo and Puebloan people in the region. Chaco park and other parts of the canyon are protected from drilling through a congressional funding bill. But there are some 250 outlying sites spread throughout north-west New Mexico, said Michelle Turner, an archaeologist studying the region. Many of those sites are connected by ancient roads, she said, which are gradually being erased by drilling-related development. Archaeologists estimate there are Native artefacts throughout much of the 7,500-sq-mile San Juan Basin, some of them probably buried underground and at risk from drilling.
Fighting the amendment is something of a last stand for Native and environmental activists who have seen the oil and gas industry proliferate in recent decades. They say at least 90% of public lands in northern New Mexico are already leased for oil and gas drilling. Under the Trump administration, the amount of US lands up for lease to oil and gas companies has soared – 461m acres across the country, as of earlier this year. To New Mexico environmentalists and indigenous activists, the new plan is just another instance of the administration’s energy dominance agenda threatening some of the country’s most pristine lands.The spectre of drilling’s dangers became real in 2016 when oil tanks owned by WPX Energy exploded near Nageezi, New Mexico, causing a huge fire that burned for many days.
Above the basin and throughout the Four Corners region is a vast cloud of methane – “the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas methane seen over the United States”, according to a 2016 Nasa study. Burning off the excess from natural gas wells, or flaring, is the primary cause of this pollution. But the gas also leaks from abandoned wells. Breathing in methane can cause headaches has been linked to health issues, including neurodevelopmental effects on children. The Bureau of Land Management is often unclear about the health and environmental risks of drilling. The Navajo Nation and surrounding areas have some of the highest per-capita infection rates of COVID-19 in the world. Environmental organizers are concerned that air pollution in the region will exacerbate the death toll, pointing to a recent Harvard study showing that people living in areas with higher pollution have a significantly higher death rate.
Mario Atencio, a Navajo organizer who works with the environmental group Diné Care and is an adviser for Daniel Tso, a Navajo Nation council member, said that when BLM representatives approach people about getting consent to lease their land for drilling, many residents walk away believing it’s going to be an older type of vertical drilling, “like the Beverly Hillbillies”. The assumption is that if they sign the agreement, their land will produce oil safely and they’ll get a big check, he said. It seemed as if BLM authorities try swaying Native people to favor drilling, leaving out certain facts, Atencio said. “That by the very definition is environmental racism and environmental injustice,” he added.
“They’re gonna kill us for their own greed,” Sam Sage, the administrator at the Counselor Chapter House, a Navajo local government center.