Tribal lawmakers pursue 'fracking' study

James Fenton
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Hale seen in this file photo sponsored legislation to oppose hydraulic fracturing on tribal lands in April.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation legislators are pursuing a study to look into the potential environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

In an effort to establish updated energy policy, tribal lawmakers are arguing in recent legislation the need to mirror the federal push to update rules over oil and gas production and deepen their understanding of the often complex energy industry practices with objective data.

This year, questions over hydraulic fracturing have gained momentum in the tribal government.

In April, Council Delegate Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs, St. Michaels) introduced a bill opposing all oil and gas drilling on the Navajo Nation "due to the potential environmental and health risks associated" with oil and gas development.

The drilling technique, industry officials say, is not new.

The technique of extracting oil and gas from tight shale formations thousands of feet underground by injecting a slurry of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure to crack rock apart and bring to the surface otherwise unreachable hydrocarbons is more than a half-century old.

In the last few years, environmental groups have filed lawsuits against the industry and the federal government is making efforts to catch up to recent advances in oil and gas production technologies such as "multi-stage" horizontal drilling. Unfortunately for the industry, the move to update 30-year-old regulations has coincided with the decline of crude oil and natural gas prices on the commodities market.

"Multi-stage" fracking is a recent phenomenon, one that opened up drilling possibilities in compact shale formations like the Mancos shale play in the San Juan Basin. During the process, the driller "fracks" into the shale with perforating guns that blast holes through the well casing and outward into the rock.

Each stage along a lateral section of the drilled well is the equivalent of a single vertical well, which turns a traditional well into one that can collect oil and gas from 50 or more points along the well bore.

Hale said in a phone interview earlier this month that his proposed legislation was inspired by a discussion of earthquakes in Oklahoma that studies suggest are caused by hydraulic fracturing in the area.

"I'm just trying to make that conversation for the better welfare and health of our people," Hale said. "What standards as a Navajo people are we going to set for the future?"

Hale said he could not recall any other tribal legislation addressing the issue of the health impacts to water, land and air from oil and gas drilling on the reservation.

"Hopefully this brings fracking and a greater knowledge of what goes into it on the minds of more people," he said. "Are we going to end up like Flint, Michigan, like with that water crisis? The people deserve to know with facts, with objective data. I’m not running this to oppose anybody."

Expressing "serious concern" over the Hale's proposed legislation, Louis Denetsosie, Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company CEO, said in a five-page letter sent to the council in April that the findings in Hale's bill were "insufficient" and "not based in sound science."

Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co. CEO Louis Denetsosie waits to answer questions from members of the tribal council at this year's winter session in Window Rock, Ariz.

Denetsosie argued in the letter that the science thus far does not show "widespread or systemic impacts on drinking water resources as a result of fracking." He cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's study of the matter as evidence the drilling technique did not pose negative impacts to the environment or public health.

Reviewing the EPA's study, the agency's Scientific Advisory Board said in its final report over the draft assessment earlier this month that the EPA did not do enough to "support quantitatively" that the drilling technique does not harm drinking water.

Lacking conclusive evidence over the issue, the tribe's Naa'bik'íyáti' committee ultimately decided there was a need to know more and agreed to conduct a scientific study on fracking before pursuing Hale's bill.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred, as seen during a council session in 2016.

Council Delegate Davis Filfred (Mexican Water, Aneth, Teecnospos, Tółikan, Red Mesa) sponsored the legislation to pursue the study and promote better understanding of hydraulic fracturing by tribal lawmakers prior to any establishment of a fracking policy.

Filfred said in a phone interview Aug. 17 that he won't support or criticize hydraulic fracturing until he sees objective data on the drilling technique.

The tribal council set a deadline of Dec. 31 to produce a study, he said, but he said he is not sure questions regarding how much a study would cost and who would pay for it will be resolved by the end of the year. The study would likely require an extension into next year, Filfred said.

"The question is, who is going to foot the bill for the study," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen. We were given a couple work sessions (to learn about fracking). What about the chemicals that they're pumping into the ground? (Oil and gas officials)  are saying the chemicals used in fracking are household items and they are going way beyond the water table. I want facts. I want data. I want to know if the water is harmed. I want to know if somebody died from fracking."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

Navajo Nation Reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.