Putting the Chaco Canyon debate in perspective

Farmington Daily Times


George Sharpe, Merrion Oil and Gas investment manager

The “Frack Off Chaco” movement made headlines the last few weeks when a number of young people representing local tribes did a relay run to protest potential oil development near Chaco Canyon. While I admire their enthusiasm and am encouraged to see youngsters turn off their cells and get involved, there is another side to the story. 

If you Google “stop drilling in Chaco”, you will find numerous environmental websites decrying the crime. Leading the charge is the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA), the Four Corner’s own Green Peace.

The ongoing debate heated up in January when the BLM leased 843 acres of land over 20 miles from the Park.

Here is an overview of the issues raised by the protesters, most of these directly from the SJCA website. 

1. Protecting Cultural Resources – There is a perception that if a company has a lease from the BLM, they can drill wherever they want and do whatever they want, with no regard for any archeological sites that may exist. That is completely false. Prior to ANY surface disturbance, an oil company must commission an archeological survey to identify any such arch sites. Even a single pottery shard can cause the relocation of an entire well pad. In short, the risk of desecrating a significant arch site is practically nonexistent.

2. Protecting Sacred Lands - The SJCA site claims that over two dozen tribes hold the region as sacred. While two dozen seems a little exaggerated, those involved in the “Frack Off Chaco” movement clearly do. As a result, they want to protect the area from the impact of modern human development, preserving it for “the old way!” While I admire their devout spirituality, the argument rings hollow. I’m not sure “the old way” contemplated electric lines to their homes in the area, or them driving cars to town and back. If they drilled a water well and have running water, that takes energy. Further, many Native Americans hold the entire Mother Earth sacred, so the sacred lands really have no end. The bottom line is that zero impact is not an option. That horse has left the corral with them in the saddle along with the rest of us.    

3. Protecting the Air - The SJCA claims that emissions from oil operations are toxic and cause cancer and respiratory problems. If SJCA’s implications were true, you would expect that with many thousands of wells, respiratory disease and cancer rates in San Juan County would exceed the national average. But according to the Cancer.Gov website, San Juan County is at 78 percent of the national average in cancer deaths per capita, and 70 percent of the national average in lung and bronchus deaths. Finally, Farmington was named by the World Health Organization as having some of the cleanest air in the country. The bottom line is that nobody living near a wellsite in the San Juan Basin (that would be most of us) is in danger from the emissions. 

4. Protecting the Water - There is a never-ending perception, fanned by the endless noise from the obstructionists, that fracking threatens water supplies. I wonder when the “Science is Real” movement will accept the science that debunks that myth. The Heartland Institute documented 21 independent studies (including many top universities, the US Geologic Service, and the EPA) that all determined that fracking does not directly impact ground water. The conclusion is in… the water is safe. 

5. Protecting the Anasazi Structures - Concern has been voiced about vibrations from the frack jobs possibly damaging the cliff dwellings. A frack job measures in at less than 1 on the Richter scale (cannot be felt at the surface), while a large truck rumbling by can measure up to a 3. The Chaco Canyon ruins are in far more danger from the cars and trucks coming and going than from fracking, especially miles from the site.   

6. BLM in bed with Industry - The SJCA website absolutely hammers on the BLM, stating: “For decades the BLM has been in the pocket of the oil and gas industry. The development has been reckless, badly planned, egged on by corrupt officials, and enabled by shady laws. When the BLM said that they are required to lease the lands in the Chaco area, they lied to us.” What an inflammatory statement devoid of truth at any level. On “the BLM’s lie”, unless land is set aside as a Special Development Area (SDA), the BLM is obligated by 43 CFR to put up any parcel which is nominated for leasing. The attached chart shows that, out of the 1.3 million acres under their jurisdiction, 805,838 acres are in SDAs, with 45 parcels totaling 137,000 acres being closed to leasing. If someone nominates a parcel that is not in the protected areas, the BLM has no choice but to offer it for lease. 

BLM Farmington Office Special Development Areas

In regard to the BLM being in Industry’s pocket, that is sure a surprise to Industry. The BLM permit approval process is comprehensive, expensive, and can take from 6 months to a year for approval. Frankly, the regulatory burden is one of the reasons why there are only 4 rigs running in the San Juan Basin versus several hundred in the Permian where most of the land is private. It is not the BLM’s role to prohibit oil and gas development. It is their role to develop the resources on behalf of all US citizens and to see that it is done right. 

In summary, SJCA’s emotional manipulation using untrue propaganda is harmful to us all. While it is essential to protect our heritage, drilling activity 20 miles from the site is absolutely no threat to Chaco Canyon. Hopefully that helps the Frack Off Chaco folks sleep easier tonight.