Panelists say oil and gas extraction threatens sacred sites, human health

Oil and Gas industry groups were not included in the discussion

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

FARMINGTON — Nearly 1,200 years ago, ancestral Puebloans laid the first rocks and mortar of great houses located in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Now those structures are at the center of a debate that pits the desire to protect historical structures against the need for oil and natural gas and its economic benefits.

“It is a place held sacred by many,” said Navajo activist Kendra Pinto who lives near Chaco Canyon during a Congressional subcommittee hearing in Santa Fe. “It is a place we find connection to our land and to our people. It is a sacred site now under attack by air, noise and light pollution associated with resource extraction.”

Pinto said the oil and gas development not only impacts the cultural sites, but also releases pollution into the air that can impact human health.

Pinto was one of several panelists who addressed the subcommittee on April 15.

Members of the New Mexico delegation have introduced legislation that would prevent new oil and gas development within a 10-mile radius of the park, but industry groups say those regulations are unnecessary and could hurt Navajos living near Chaco Canyon who could receive royalties from development.

Pueblo Bonito is pictured, Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

A New Mexico Environment Department map of oil and gas wells in the state show several active gas wells and one active oil well about eight miles north of the park boundaries and several active oil wells within five miles southeast of park boundaries.

Industry group says oil and gas is extracted responsibly

The Congressional subcommittee did not hear testimony from industry groups and Western Energy Alliance's president Kathleen Sgamma criticized it as a skewed version of what's happening around the park.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre has said oil and gas development can be done and has been done in a responsible way to prevent damage to fragile cultural sites.

In addition, industry groups say existing laws including the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historical Preservation Act already ensure protections of cultural resources. McEntyre said the national park boundaries protect sites within Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Oil and gas proponents further argue that regulations could make it harder for operators and lead to decreased extraction in the San Juan Basin. This could have significant impacts for the local area as well as the state.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., visits Pueblo Bonito, Sunday, April 14, 2019, during a tour of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

New Mexico relies on oil and gas for about a quarter of the state’s revenue every year.

The majority of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office has been leased for extraction. While revenue from these industries is critical for local and state government, Democratic lawmakers say that comes at a cost. U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, said 25 percent of emissions that contribute to climate change are created on public lands.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, walks along a wall at Pueblo Bonito, Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

She attributed this to extractive industry.

 “We do not have enough renewable energy projects on public lands and we have way too many gas and oil projects on public lands,” Haaland said.

Not all people support Haaland’s idea of increasing renewable energy production on public lands while decreasing fossil fuel extraction. Critics argue certain taxes such as severance taxes are only levied on oil, gas and mining industries.

Industry officials are also concerned that the 10-mile buffer zone could be the beginning of a slippery slope that would result in large portions of the basin being closed to development.

“If it’s 10 miles today, what’s it 10 years from now?” McEntyre said a year ago when lawmakers previously introduced a bill to make the buffer zone permanent.

Archaeologist encourages permanent Chaco buffer zone, additional protections

Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, said the buffer zone was created due to changing technologies and increased drilling that was not anticipated when the Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office drafted its resource management plan in 2003. This triggered the process of creating an amendment to the 2003 plan. This amended plan has not yet been released, and the buffer zone was created to protect the cultural resources while that amendment was drafted.

At front, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.,  walk along the Pueblo Bonito trail, Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The buffer zone is intended to protect Chaco Canyon, but does not prevent drilling near the majority of sites connected to Chaco.

“Despite the protection offered by Chaco Culture National Historical Park, many sites lie outside the Park across the Greater Chaco Landscape,” archaeologist Paul Reed told the subcommittee. "These places, many of which are as significant as those within park boundaries, are scarcely protected from the ravages of oil‐gas development.”

Archaeologists have identified more than 200 Chaco outliers — or great houses located outside of the park boundaries — and they anticipate finding more in the future.

Pueblo Bonito is pictured, Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“We believe these already‐leased lands provide sufficient access to the oil‐gas resources in the Greater Chaco Landscape, particularly with the advances in horizontal drilling, such that additional leasing should not be permitted,” Reed said about the buffer zone.

Fracking opponents seek Chaco area moratorium

In addition to making the buffer zone permanent, Reed requested tribal consultation, including site visits, to leased areas where cultural resources are present.

Reed further requested additional protections for the Great North Road Corridor, which stretches from Chaco Canyon into Colorado and connected ancestral Puebloan sites. He requested making the corridor an area of critical environmental concern and closing it to future leasing.

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

“This corridor has seen significantly more oil and gas leasing and development than the lands immediately surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” he said. “However, like the lands around the park, this corridor also contains a high density of connected cultural sites that would benefit from enhanced lease stipulations and development guidelines.”

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