Congressional subcommittee visits Chaco Canyon as debate on oil, gas development continues

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK — Members of Congress visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park as the debate continues about oil and gas development near the park.

A U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources spent several days in New Mexico learning about the impacts of oil and gas production.

Prior to visiting the park on Sunday, the lawmakers visited various well sites in the region. Advocates of a buffer zone around the park provided infrared cameras that allowed them to see methane leaks from these wells. 

“You could see the plumes coming out and moving across the sky,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, during a committee hearing today in Santa Fe.

The hearing was live streamed on the House Committee on Natural Resource’s Facebook page.

“We are really here to understand and really see with our own eyes and to bring back to Washington, D.C. what we’ve learned about the impacts of oil and gas,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., during a press conference Sunday at Chaco.

Lowenthal and other speakers on Sunday stood at a podium with a #ProtectChaco sign on the front.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, speaks, Sunday, April 14, 2019, during a press conference at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Lowenthal said they learned how oil and gas activity near the park degrades water, impacts air quality and contributes to climate change. He said they also listened to people about the impacts of uranium mining.

During a hearing today, Lowenthal said the visit to New Mexico is the first of a series of field hearings in different parts of the country to examine the impacts of oil and gas development. 

MORE:Udall, Heinrich, Luján and Haaland call for permanent protections around Chaco

"Across the west the availability of oil and gas has been both a blessing and a curse," Lowenthal said. "These resources are a major component of the economy in many parts of the country."

He said the benefits come with "significant consequences to our air, to our water, to our climate, to our health, and to wild, natural places and to sacred sites."

Luján, Haaland introduce bill to codify the Chaco buffer zone

Less than a week before the field hearing, Lujan and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, introduced legislation to permanently prohibit new oil and gas leasing within a 10 mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Industry groups have opposed this bill and cited mixed views among tribal members regarding the buffer zone.

"Despite the messaging on the bill, a 10-mile buffer zone around the park would strand the energy resources that these tribal members own, depriving them of a critical source of income," said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of Western Energy Alliance, in an email statement.

She said the bill "would run roughshod over Indian allottees, who own oil and natural gas rights throughout the area."

While industry groups cite allottees who could benefit from oil and gas, the tribal representatives who participated in panel discussions during the field hearing said they support the bill that Luján and Haaland have introduced.

Haaland, who is a member of Laguna Pueblo, said if that bill becomes law, she will feel virtuous.

Haaland views the Greater Chaco region as her ancestral homeland. This region encompasses northwest New Mexico, southeast Utah and southwest Colorado.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, sits at an overlook, Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

"I feel compelled to always, always honor and respect the legacy that my ancestors left for me and our people," Haaland said. "And in doing so that means protecting the land, protecting the mountains and every animal that lives on the land to ensure that we are always putting the people and the greater good first."

She said she was disheartened to see the amount of development that has happened without benefiting the people in the surrounding communities. For example, Haaland said some people near Chaco do not have access to running water despite the use of water in hydraulic fracturing.

Haaland said the committee needs to find out what the priorities are and what they should be.

"They should always be for the benefit of the people," she said.

In addition to introducing legislation to protect Chaco, she has introduced a bill to expand Bears Ears National Monument to the boundaries proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. While the committee was touring Chaco and during the panel testimony Monday, Bears Ears was mentioned several times.

“I think it’s all connected,” Haaland said.

MORE:A year after size reduction, Bears Ears National Monument fight continues

She said the region was the home to an ancient, advanced civilization and it needs to be honored and protected.

During the hearing today, Haaland spoke about the impacts of uranium mining in her community and how the members of Laguna Pueblo lost ancestral homes that could not be replaced. She said she feels oil and gas development is doing the same thing.

"It's so much easier to destroy something than it is to build it back up," she said.

BLM, industry groups not included in panels

The congressmen and congresswoman heard from Navajo and Pueblo leaders. In addition to hearing from members of tribal communities connected to the Chacoan landscape, they listened to comments from advocacy groups like Wild Earth Guardians, the Environmental Defense Fund and New Mexico Voices for Children.

No Bureau of Land Management officials joined them on the tour, nor were they included in the panel hearing.

The various hearing panels did not include input from oil and gas industry officials during their visit.

MORE:Appeal planned in lawsuit over drilling near Chaco historic park

"The field hearing is unfortunate because it is putting forward a very skewed version of what's happening on the ground around the park," said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of Western Energy Alliance, in an email statement.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park Superintendent Denise Robertson stands in front of a kiva at Pueblo Bonito, Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

She said there has been oil and natural gas production in the Chaco area for decades and the development is done in a manner that protects cultural resources. Sgamma said when archaeological surveys find cultural resources the oil and gas companies change the locations of the well pads to avoid impacting the sites.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument Superintendent Denise Robertson told The Daily Times she is not aware of evidence of damage to the cultural sites within the parks' boundaries due to oil and gas development. 

While Robertson said she does not know of such evidence, she said there are various ongoing studies of air quality, vibrations and water quality impacts of oil and gas development near the sites.

Industry representatives have said the existing laws already protect the cultural sites in and around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

"Energy development and protection of those artifacts have gone hand-in-hand for decades," Sgamma said. "We comply with laws like the National Historic Preservation Act to ensure that heritage is protected."

However tribal representatives told the committee today that those existing protections do not do enough to protect the resources.

Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said there needs to be more tribal consultation.

“One time for all time isn’t good enough,” he said.

He said situations evolve and issues evolve. Lizer said laws need to be strengthened with Native American input.

"There is safety in the council of many," he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at