Fracking boom leads to tension in Navajo communities

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Melorie Begay

Maria Herbert-Chavez speaks at Navajo Nation Council listening session at Counselor Chapter. Photograph by Melorie Begay.

On a windy Monday morning in May, residents packed the Counselor Chapter House. Some sat in plastic folding chairs, while others leaned against the wall, all paying attention to the speakers.

Coming to the front of the chapter house, Marie Chavez Herbert introduced herself in the Navajo language. “I’m going to talk real fast OK,” she said as she took the microphone to talk about fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in her community near Chaco Canyon.

Four members of the Navajo Nation Council, Speaker LoRenzo Bates, Councilor Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Councilor Davis Filfred and Councilor Leonard Tsosie who represents Counselor as well as nearby chapters, had come to hear testimony from area residents.

The listening session, which lasted about five hours, provided a glimpse into tensions in several small Navajo communities near Chaco Canyon over an uptick in fracking in recent years, pitting those who worry about the public health hazards it poses against government agencies who authorize it, as well as some of their neighbors who benefit  economically from leasing their land to oil and gas companies.

While the packed chapter house included environmental activists and Navajo Nation oil and gas company representatives, members of the community, like Chavez, made their presence felt.

listen“I have an oil drill right behind my own backyard,” Chavez said. “In fact there’s almost two [or] three of them.” Chavez moved back to Nageezi, a neighboring chapter, two years ago after living in California for several years.

What she moved back to is a hotbed of fracking activity in New Mexico spurred by the discovery of a new “oil play” about four years ago. Infrastructure for drilling, pumping and storing oil is scattered throughout the rural landscape sometimes referred to as the “greater Chaco” area. About 20 miles south is Chaco Cultural National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Melorie Begay

Fracking infrastructure dots the landscape, often very near homes.

Fracking involves drilling outward horizontally from a wellhead that was drilled vertically deep within the earth. Industry literature characterizes it as more environmentally friendly than traditional vertical drilling because fewer wells are needed to remove the same amount of oil. But critics say the method is known to create earthquakes and that it poses threats to groundwater.

Oil and gas extraction in the area has been ongoing since 1911, but technological improvements have led recently to a dramatic rise in fracking for oil in and around these rural communities. One company, WPX Energy, has drilled 100 new wells in the area since about 2013.

Marjorie Childress

Kids catch the bus on this rural road, with pipelines that cross driveways. The roads also carry industrial truck traffic.

It’s not uncommon for the fracking sites to be close to homes in the Counselor area. They can be as close as 400 feet. Pipelines snake along the sides of roadways, crossing driveways.

Community members throughout the day questioned whether living near the fracking sites is healthy or safe. Industrial oil and gas trucks continually wend through the landscape kicking up dust on the unpaved roads. All of the activity — the drilling, the pumping, the trucks crisscrossing the landscape — creates noise.

Marjorie Childress

In a 30 minute period parked on a road in a rural residential area of Counselor/Nageezi Chapters, 11 industrial trucks kicked up dust coming and going.

“I tell people it’s not an eight-to-five job, it doesn’t quit just like that. It’s always happening around here, always. Now we hear all these humming noises, from the compressors I’m guessing. And that’s loud. That was never there before,” said resident Kendra Pinto.

The rural nature of the area means emergency services aren’t right around the corner, which numerous community members mentioned when talking about a fire that occurred last year.

On July 11, 2016, an explosion rocked the surrounding area around 10 p.m. at a new fracking site containing six wells, sending a large plume of black smoke into the air, engulfing the community. The company that owns the facility, WPX Energy, says an equipment malfunction caused the fire that burned over three days, destroying 36 storage tanks containing oil and water.

WPX states it helped area residents, paying for their food and lodging temporarily in nearby towns as the fire burned out. But that was challenged at the May meeting.

“When the explosion happened, I was there, 24/7,” Chavez said. “Nobody, nobody, came to my house after the fact.”

Chavez called for health studies so residents have data they need to understand whether there are health impacts from the explosion.

Chavez also took aim at the issue of fairness, saying some people are receiving money from leasing their land to oil companies while others are not.

In a rural place where unemployment is high, the ability of some Navajo families to lease the land they obtained through an allotment process administered by the federal government in the early 20th century is a significant opportunity.

But others who live on Navajo land and aren’t able to lease to companies still feel the impacts of the oil operations.

Pinto emphasized the point. “Not everyone is an allottee, so remember that,” she urged the audience.

WPX Energy alone says it paid $35.8 million in 2015 royalties for “San Juan Basin wells on federal, state and Indian lands,” $21.6 million in severance and ad valorem taxes, and $10.1 million to private landowners.

Counselor and neighboring Torreon, Huerfano and Nageezi Chapters are within what is commonly referred to as the “checkerboard region” of New Mexico, where land is divided among a maze of different owners — federal, state, and Indian lands as well as some privately held land.

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape.

The conflict between Navajo Nation residents who’ve leased their land and those who haven’t was evident throughout the meeting.

While residents like Chavez are critical, others say the activity has brought important resources to their families and communities through lease payments and royalties.

One woman who has leased her property came to voice her support for oil and gas drilling in the area.

“Financially, this whole leasing thing, I benefitted from it,” Delora Hesuse said.

Hesuse said she and her family have been leasing their land for various purposes for generations. She used to be a caretaker for the elderly, but lost her job.

“It helped me to put my daughter through school,” said Hesuse of her family’s lease. Her sister was able to send her sons to college as well.

Of the potential safety risks, Hesuse said she educated herself by taking a tour of a fracking site and regularly requests water samples and testing.

Hesuse said the Navajo Nation should step up and address public health issues on the nation, as WPX Energy took care of her family in the aftermath of the explosion.

“How come they (the Navajo Nation) haven’t stepped up their laws to deal with anything,” Hesuse asked.

“Unfortunately, my cousin, Marie she lives right there, right where it was,” Hesuse said about Chavez. “It’s just that nobody thought anything like that was going to happen.”

She said she was speaking up in support of the leases because others who’ve benefited were too scared to talk and were tired of being guilted for trying to support their families.

But not all such residents are as supportive of oil operations as Hesuse.

One community member who benefits from leasing spoke out about misunderstanding the impact the oil and gas industry would have on the area.

“This place is worse than it is now than when I left from here because of the roads, because of the air, because of dishonesty,” Harold Sam said. Sam left the area 40 years ago and now lives in Farmington.

“Sure I get money from these oil people, it felt good,” Sam said. “… but yet I was never told [that] because of the drilling … it’s going to cause health problems, it’s going to damage the water.”

Sam says that oil companies don’t warn residents about potential risks and instead use money to distract them. “Where is the honesty,” Sam asked.

“Consent has never happened here,” Cheyenne Antonio said during her five minutes at the front of the chapter. “My grandma, she gets benefits, yes she gets oil and gas money, yes, yes we know. But what she doesn’t know are what are all these chemicals that they’re using.”

Antonio’s from the Pueblo Pintado area, but she and her family moved to Albuquerque. Her grandmother leased her land for oil operations, but Antonio questioned the information her grandmother relied on when making the decision.

While Antonio said it’s too late for her grandma to change her decision, they are still hoping to educate others.

Health impacts are a serious concern, Antonio said.

“Since this boom has happened, my little brother has been diagnosed with cancer … and it has been an ongoing struggle.”

Some community members are conducting their own health assessment in an attempt to understand the impact fracking may have already caused in the area.

The Hózhóógó na’adá Assessment is being prepared by Herbert Benally, Ph.D, and Larry W. Emerson, Ph.D. An initial report that relies on a small sample of residents for information suggests a need for better communication and cultural understanding between the companies, the government, and the community itself.

Marjorie Childress

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Lorenzo Bates addresses the audience at the Counselor Chapter listening session.

Government officials who listened throughout the day seemed to agree.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Bates acknowledged the difficulties faced by the community, but stressed that all entities involved will have to compromise with one another.

Bates cited the need for different government agencies to work better together.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces dealing with the situation … this government (has) slow moving gears, but it moves,” Bates said in remarks at the end of the day.

Others at the meeting noted the economic benefit of oil and gas leasing to the Navajo Nation, and attempted to reassure community members of its safety.

“We are acutely aware of not only economic, but environmental safety and health, cultural and social aspects of oil and gas operations,” said William McCabe, a consultant for Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co., which is owned by the Navajo Nation.

“Those studies that have come to bear have shown that there’s very little impact at least on the water standpoint, from hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas activity,” McCabe said.

Both McCabe and Bates said energy development is important to the future of the Navajo Nation, with oil and gas becoming more important as the future of coal becomes increasingly uncertain.

The Navajo Nation is grappling with looming revenue shortages due to a planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station in 2019. It currently relies on lease agreements, royalties and other payments tied to the NGS and Kayenta coal mine that supplies it for 20 percent of its operating revenue. That revenue is in addition to over 3,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye in a March 2017 opinion piece. In the face of uncertainty related to coal revenue, hydraulic fracturing is one solution the Nation is looking toward, McCabe said.

Bates echoed an assertion by McCabe that the Navajo Nation is an “energy nation.” A decline in coal puts the Navajo Nation in a tough position, he said, but it has the means to develop its economy through oil and gas operations.

“It can provide, it does provide, it has provided, but you have on the other side the challenges associated with each,” Bates said.

Melorie Begay holds New Mexico In Depth’s reporting fellowship at the University of New Mexico for the academic year 2017/2018.

*Correction: We have corrected the order of Marie Chavez Herbert’s name. In the original post, we wrote Marie Herbert-Chavez.

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