Tour focuses on oil, gas sites on Ch'ooshgai Mountain

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Pete Dronkers, southwest circuit rider for Earthworks, checks for emissions at a gas well next to Navajo Route 13 near Buffalo Pass in Arizona on Jan. 11.

RED VALLEY, Arizona — Using an infrared camera that detects gas leaks from oil and natural gas sites, Pete Dronkers stood near a pump jack on Ch'ooshgai Mountain.

Dronkers, the southwest circuit rider for Earthworks, used the camera to check for methane emissions at three sites on the mountain during a Jan. 11 tour.

The tour was a collaboration between Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental group, and Diné CARE, an environmental advocacy group based on the Navajo Nation.

Diné CARE member Robyn Jackson said the purpose of the tour was to show these sites to Earthworks because the organization has equipment to conduct monitoring and to help with public education about production activities.

Robyn Jackson, a member of Diné CARE, talks about the purpose of a tour to oil and gas sites located on Ch'ooshgai Mountain on Jan. 11.

Jackson said several drilling sites were set up by Kerr McGee Corp., which operated uranium mines in Red Valley Chapter.

The three sites visited on the tour were started in 1967 by Kerr McGee, according to the Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

This was the first-time Earthworks visited Ch'ooshgai Mountain, but the organization has shot footage at oil and gas sites across the country, including up to 150 locations in the San Juan Basin.

During the tour Dronkers showed footage from the infrared camera of an oil hydraulic fracturing site the team shot on Jan. 10 in Counselor Chapter.

A pump jack operates at an oil site on Jan. 11 on Ch'ooshgai Mountain near Red Valley, Arizona.

Dronkers said the footage showed a mixture of methane and volatile organic compounds, including various hydrocarbons.

"It's a health concern for workers that have to breathe that in or anyone living downwind from that. You can see this probably occurring around the clock," he said.

Nathalie Eddy, field advocate for Colorado and New Mexico at Earthworks, also recorded data such as temperature and wind speeds at each site.

Pete Dronkers, southwest circuit rider for Earthworks, shows footage the organization took on Jan. 10 of a production site in Counselor Chapter.

"If we're sharing these videos with communities, we want to make sure they have the information," Eddy said. "The more information we have about circumstances in which we found this, the more creditable the findings are going to be."

In November 2016, the Bureau of Land Management announced a rule to reduce the amount of flaring, venting and leaking of natural gas from oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands.

Under the rule, oil and gas producers would be responsible to reduce such emissions at sites.

Pete Dronkers, southwest circuit rider for Earthworks, uses an infrared camera to film emissions from a oil well on Jan. 11 on Ch'ooshgai Mountain near Red Valley, Arizona.

While proponents applauded the action, President Donald Trump issued executive orders last year that called for a review of the rule and for its delay or suspension, according to the Federal Register.

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management announced a suspension of the rule until January 2019 so further review can be conducted.

In the meantime, Earthworks will continue to visit sites in San Juan County.

"We continue to go into the field and document these problems because we have to continually show the problem isn't solving itself," Dronkers said. 

Bruce Baizel, energy program director for Earthworks, examines a gas well on Navajo Route 13 in Arizona on Jan. 11.

Diné CARE member Jackson said the tour was also arranged to highlight the proposed Navajo Forestlands Integrated Resource Management Plan.

The plan is under development by the Navajo Nation Forestry Department for how to manage, conserve and enhance 705,878 acres of forestland on the reservation.

A portion of a water injection well site is labeled.

Part of the plan's development includes an assessment and evaluation of resources and activities, such as vegetation, mining and minerals, fish and wildlife, water resources, recreation and home site development.

As Jackson stood near an electric pumping unit, she said she is concerned about the possibility of increased oil and gas production on Ch'ooshgai Mountain, including impacts to air, water and wildlife.

"The individuals who are supposed to be taking care of these sites, they need to invest in informing Navajo communities," Jackson said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

A pump jack sits on Ch'ooshgai Mountain near Red Valley, Arizona on Jan. 11.
Pete Dronkers, southwest circuit rider for Earthworks, examines the end of a pipe at an oil well on Jan. 11 on Ch'ooshgai Mountain near Red Valley, Arizona.