Bill calling for helium development in Northern Agency moves to Navajo Nation Council

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A bill that proposes authorizing three operating agreements for helium development at three areas in the Northern Agency has been referred to the Navajo Nation Council.

The Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, a tribal enterprise, is seeking approval from tribal leaders for the project.

Helium is second in abundance in the universe but not common on Earth, and the Navajo Nation has some of the highest concentrations in North America. The element is vital to industries that center on manufacturing, technology and aerospace.

The development would occur at Tohachee Wash in Teec Nos Pos Chapter, Beautiful Mountain in the Red Valley and Sanostee chapters, and in Porcupine Dome in Sanostee Chapter, according to the legislation.

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Speaker Seth Damon is seen presiding at a special session in 2019 at the Navajo Nation Council chamber in Window Rock, Arizona. Damon is sponsoring a bill to authorize operating agreements for helium production in the Northern Agency.

Supporting documents attached to the bill describe the Beautiful Mountain lease area as located in a broad valley that is bordered by the mountain on the west and Rock Ridge on the east.

The bill received "do pass" recommendations from the Resources and Development Committee and the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee. The tribal council has final authority.

Speaker Seth Damon, the bill's sponsor, explained to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee on Jan. 13 that he proposed the legislation because the tribe needs new sources of revenue to fill the gap left by the closure of the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine.

Damon said the closures in 2019 removed up to $45 million in annual revenue.

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Lennard Eltsosie, Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company board chairman, is pictured in 2016 at the tribal council chamber in Window Rock, Arizona. The company is seeking permission from tribal leaders to start a helium production project in the Northern Agency.

While the action proposed by the oil and gas company could help alleviate the loss, several delegates questioned Damon and company officials about efforts to gather input from community members and grazing permit holders.

Many have concerns about methods used to extract helium and the lack of consultation, delegates said.

"That would be the forthright and earnest aspect. That needs to happen," Delegate Daniel E. Tso said about dialogue between the parties.

Lennard Eltsosie, chairman of the company's board, said they have been educating community members about the project, including discussions with Sanostee Chapter members in 2019 and in 2021.

"We did get a resolution from them as a support to our efforts," Eltsosie said.

The Sanostee Chapter resolution from 2019 is attached to the bill along with resolutions in 2017 and in 2019 from Teec Nos Pos Chapter.

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Less than 30 residents supported each resolution. The tribe's Division of Community Development shows the population of Sanostee is approximately 1,800 while the population in Teec Nos Pos is about 1,300.

"I got nothing against trying to make some money," Delegate Eugene Tso said. "My only question, my only concern is the communities."

Members of the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee voted 18-4 in favor of the bill. The tribal council starts the winter session on Jan. 24, when the bill could be on the agenda.

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

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