Fracking in Greater Chaco Canyon Area Has Created a Horrid Sacrifice Zone

Today, we report on our tour of Greater Chaco Canyon fracking sites. I thought I knew a good deal about fracking in northwest NM, but Roxanne & I were shocked at what we saw and were told. This is a must-read post.

One Note Before We Focus on Chaco

Tuesday, October 1, 6:30-8:30pm at 1420 Cerrillos the Center for Progress and Justice: A Panel Discussion on Democratizing Our Energy.  Come learn about the transformative benefits of Local Choice Energy and Community Solar and how they are essential to a just transition in New Mexico. This is an opportunity to become better informed about a clean energy transition in New Mexico and to turn your knowledge into effective advocacy at the local and state level.

Please RSVP by email to, or on Facebook — click “Going” at this link. Confirmed panel members include: 

  • Mariel Nanasi, Executive Director, New Energy Economy;
  • Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Dist 20, a retired renewable energy scientist;
  • Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-District 13, sponsor of the Community Solar Act;
  • Les Rubin, Finance Director, Pueblo of Picuris, where a 1 Megawatt solar array project was completed in 2018;
  • Mario Atencio, Legislative District Assistant, Navajo Nation, and Adjunct Professor, UNM Native American Studies.

The discussion will begin with Atencio and Rubin framing the discussion, with Atencio outlining how the extraction industry is destroying his Navajo community in the greater Chaco Canyon area (see below). Rubin will follow with a description of how the creation of a modest sized solar array has transformed the Picuris Pueblo community. A study in contrasts.

With this contrast as the context, panelists will discuss how Community Solar, Local Choice Energy and legislation for a study for how to make a just transition can together advance climate justice, followed by a Q & A session with the audience. Join us to find out more about the possibilities to achieve climate justice in NM and turn your knowledge into effective advocacy at the local and state level.

We hope to live-stream this event to Facebook and to have the video available to watch at any time after. We have a new piece of audio equipment scheduled to arrive this week that should noticeably improve the video/ streaming sound quality. To help us accommodate all who want to attend in person, PLEASE RSVP by clicking “Going” on this Facebook event page, or by emailing by Mon., Sept. 30. Thank you!

Shocking Sacrifice Zone in Greater Chaco Canyon

Last Sunday, Roxanne and I went on an all-day fracking tour of the Greater Chaco Canyon area. As we reported the other day, the experience was both knee-buckling and motivating, as what we saw and heard defined clearly what a sacrifice zone looks like.

The day was a study of contrasts, on the one hand, as far as the eye could see were breathtaking vistas and a clear blue sky.

Cows, horses and sheep grazed innocently.

But not all was tranquility and beauty, as the scent of methane was everywhere, and as we began our tour, every road was scattered with drilling operations, painted green or grey to blend in with the surrounding terrain. But no paint could mask the impact of these wells, the scent of methane reminded us of that, a scent underscored by an eight hour narrative delivered by Daniel Tso, Daniel Tso, an activist and member of the Navajo Nation Council; Samuel Sage, a Counselor Chapter Administrator, and Mario Atencio, Legislative District Assistant, Navajo Nation, and Adjunct Professor, UNM Native American Studies who together led the tour.

These fracking operations were everywhere. And where you couldn’t see them, you could smell them.

Over 91% of public lands in the region are leased to oil and gas development, with over 40,000 wells. The area is a “checkerboard” of federal, state, Tribal, private, and Navajo allotment land. Existing development further fragments the landscape, pollutes air and water resources, and puts local communities at risk. Now, additional development, using new industrialized fracking technologies, threatens to expand these impacts on the region. The map below offers a view of how close to Chaco Canyon fracking operations are being conducted. It shows how the scale of fracking is devastating wide swathes of Navajo Nation land.

Chaco Canyon is southwest to much of the drilling.
The land between the four Sacred Mountains is also sacred. It isn’t just about Chaco Canyon

But while Chaco Canyon is indeed one of the most sacred of sites in all of the Navajo Nation, according to Daniel Tso, all of the lands surrounded by the four sacred mountains are considered sacred to the Navajos — San Francisco Peaks, Mt. Taylor, Hesperus Peak, and Blanca Peak (see second map below). There are thousands of wells that are desecrating these lands.

What’s more, while still strongly concerned about protecting sacred sites, Tso and the organization of which he is a part, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, or Diné C.A.R.E., is focused more on health, environmental, and economic impacts on the Navajo Nation, as the impact of fracking operations in the Greater Chaco area go well beyond the desecration of sacred land. The impacts on the Navajo community’s health, wealth, and environment are staggering.

Community impacts. From FrackOff Chaco, “Development of oil and gas wells requires thousands of truck trips per well. Traffic, noise, and light intrude on the daily lives of residents, negatively impact local wildlife, and degrade the region’s landscape. According to data from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, there were 1,477 reported spills in 2015, an 87% increase since 2011, and an average of 4 spills per day.

In July 2016, a well pad near the Nageezi Chapter House and in Greater Chaco exploded and burned for days, killing livestock and requiring local residents to evacuate. Insufficient emergency planning put local community members at great risk.

Tour leaders, told stories of how a leaks were commonplace and information about those leaks was not routinely disclosed. Indeed, being kept in the dark was one of the themes of the tour. Tour leaders spoke of how federal and state agencies purported to be charged with protecting the land and air, were in collusion with the oil industry. Even the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Nation Council have failed to take action to support advocacy efforts that emerge from the communities and the chapters being impacted.

Health impacts. When we were on our tour, we were told story after story of increases in incidences of cancer and childhood asthma. One tour leader told of how his friend, a bus driver for the Cuba School District, was stunned when on the first day of school, he noticed a dramatic increase in the number of young children wearing masks due to the onset of asthma.

From FrackOff Chaco:

Smog and regional haze resulting from oil and gas development pose serious threats to local communities, especially to children and elderly with respiratory complications. Additional pollutants, including BTEX compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, significantly increase (nearly double) the likelihood that people living with a half mile of an oil or gas pad will get cancer.
Smog: In 2016, San Juan County got an “F” from the American Lung Association for ground-level ozone (smog) pollution. Smog aggressively reacts with lung tissue, posing a serious health threat to children and those suffering from asthma. In New Mexico, smog from oil and gas pollution causes over 12,000 asthma attacks in children each year.
Regional Haze: Oil and gas development releases airborne particulate matter and gases that form regional haze. Haze blocks light, reduces visibility and endangers public health.

Economic impacts. Drilling in Greater Chaco is reaping enormous profits for oil companies, providing well-paying jobs for workers mostly imported from Montana and Wyoming, and filling the coffers of the State and County. According to Laura Montoya, Sandoval County Treasurer and candidate for US Congress in CD-3, Sandoval County receives over $90 million a year from gas revenues and the small school district serving Counselor, Cuba School District, receives $92 thousand dollars a month. And of course, the state is now wholly dependent upon gas and oil revenues.

But the Navajo Nation receives nothing. While workers are brought in from other states, the community of Greater Chaco has a 55% unemployment rate and the community’s poverty rate exceeds the states by 138%. Yes, there is money being made–by others. But that economic wealth is not being shared with those who inhabit the land that has been invaded.

Even the Cuba School District’s construction of a new elementary school in Counselor is a mixed blessing, as the school is surrounded by drill pads and wells.

Methane plume shaded red and visible from satellites orbiting the earth.

Climate Impacts. From FrackOff Chaco: “Four Corners Methane Hotspot: The Four Corners Hotspot is the largest concentration of atmospheric methane in the U.S., directly over the San Juan Basin. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is 87 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a climate pollutant. A NASA study released in August 2016 confirmed that the vast majority of the hotspot methane originates from oil and gas infrastructure.

And more from FrackOff Chaco:

“In 2015, the United States joined with 194 other nations in the Paris Agreement, recognizing the imminent threat of climate change with the goal of ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.’ Continuing to drill in the San Juan Basin is in direct opposition to this national policy. To meet the 2°C threshold, 68% of known reserves — fossil fuels already controlled by industry — must remain in the ground.”

While Trump exited the Paris Accord, on January 29, 2019 Gov. Lujan Grisham signed an Executive Order committing the state to joining the U.S. Climate Alliance and fully supporting the Paris Accord. To quote the Governor:

Today marks an important shift in direction on climate policy in New Mexico,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “We know all too well states cannot rely on the federal government right now to act responsibly and take the bold action scientists have made clear is needed to prevent calamitous climate change fallout in our lifetimes. It’s up to us. And I have full confidence our commitments today will launch our state toward a robust transformation, with results delivered by each state agency to make a cohesive, effective whole.”

Unfortunately, the Governor is not always so strident in her support for green environmental policy. Just five months after the above declaration, she went to Carlsbad to address gas and oil leaders and to meet with XTO and Exxon Mobil executives.

Lujan Grisham countered arguments that her administration favored renewable energy over fossil fuels by pointing to a recent announcement that oil giant Exxon Mobil and Permian subsidiary XTO Energy plan to bring more than $64 billion in investments to New Mexico in the next 40 years….

‘The question I sometimes get is are you picking one set of energy investments over another? Absolutely not,’ Lujan Grisham said. ‘This should be an energy economy. I think we can be a clean energy state. We’re going to do incredible work in the environment. But we’re going to be an all-of-the-above energy economy.’

‘If we weren’t, and we were trying to do things that didn’t embrace that opportunity and potential, then I wouldn’t have been with XTO and Exxon this morning talking about their long-term investment that they’ve announced,” she said on Friday. “We’re doing that as a partnership.”

This is the kind of equivocation that can lead to a devastated Greater Chaco Canyon landscape, even while the state invests in solar and wind. But, 40,000 fracking operations in Greater Chaco is not consistent with the Paris Accord; continuing to contribute to the largest methane cloud on earth, is not consistent with the Paris Accord; and the frenzied drilling operations in the Permian Basin are not consistent with the Paris Accord.

The failure of state, national and Navajo Nation leadership to protect the Greater Chaco area, has led organizers like Daniel Tso to turn to NGO’s and community organizations and to form Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a coalition to advocate for the people who actually live in this area. To date over 110 organizations have joined the coalition.

To make a donation to Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, please make a check out to Diné C.A.R.E. and mail it to their headquarters at: Diné C.A.R.E ; HC 63 Box 272, Winslow, AZ, 86047.

Please join us on Tuesday, Oct 1, from 6:30-8:30pm to hear more about our energy options and how you can be part of efforts to create a just transition in NM.

In solidarity, Paul and Roxanne

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3 replies

  1. We should all be pushing for a New Mexico Constitutional Amendment which protects clean air clean water and a clean environment as inalienable rights. Those rights should not be subservient to extractive Industries property rights to the oil and gas.

  2. We also participated in the tour. Here’s a link to a good writeup from the New Mexico Political Report

    The biggest take away was that the Navajo Nation needs our partnership and support in banning this practice. The stats on water waste alone should convince any rational being.

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