November 17, 2022

Environmental assessment shows Chaco mineral leasing mineral moratorium would impact few Navajo allottees

Bureau of Land Management

The proposed area around Chaco Culture National Historical Park that could be withdrawn from mineral leasing.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s environmental assessment of withdrawing federal lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park from mineral leasing shows that less than a dozen Navajo allottees will be highly impacted by the decision.

This is based on past analysis of where potential development could occur.

The withdrawal is intended to protect sites that are sacred to the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and the Navajo, or Diné, people.

The process began about a year ago when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, issued a secretarial order calling for a 20-year moratorium on new oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

While less than a dozen allottees would be highly impacted, another 39 allottees could see moderate impacts from the withdrawal. The majority of the allottees—more than 1,000—wouldn’t be impacted at all by the withdrawal and 177 allottees could see low impacts.

The withdrawal would only impact new leases of federal minerals and would not prevent the allottees from leasing their mineral rights. However, as some of the allottees point out, shutting down new leasing options surrounding their allotments would limit the interest and ability for oil companies to pursue allottee minerals because of the checkerboard nature of land ownership.

The environmental assessment states that the 160-acre allotments are often in a checkerboard pattern with federal mineral estates and that withdrawing federal minerals could mean that companies wouldn’t be as able to effectively extract oil or gas from allottee mineral rights.

While the total area comprises approximately 960,000 acres, only 338,960 acres of that would be impacted because the rest is either tribal, state or private. A state moratorium on oil and gas leasing around Chaco expires next year.

During a BLM public comment meeting on Monday in Farmington, allottees spoke about colonialism and how their ancestors were forced off of their lands and out of their homes.

Grace Newton Begay was born in what is now Chaco Culture National Historical Park. She said her family was forced to move to a new allotment when the park was created. 

Now, she says, the federal government is trying to prevent the allottees like her family from making money off of the oil.

“It’s too long that my people have suffered out there,” she told officials from the BLM.

Many allottees have to haul water and firewood down rough dirt roads by truck.

Those that oppose the withdrawal say the oil companies have been good stewards and that if evidence shows that a well will impact an important cultural site or an archaeological site then development does not occur.

But not all of the allottees oppose the withdrawal.

When the withdrawal was announced last year, the Diné Allottees Against Oil Exploitation praised Haaland’s order temporarily banning new extraction.

Mario Atencio attended the meeting in Farmington on Monday. He said his family has an allotment in the Chaco area.

“Allottees are not monolithic,” he said.

Atencio has been advocating for a buffer zone around Chaco and often speaks about the impacts that emissions from oil and gas have on people who live in the area.

He expressed some concerns about the environmental assessment, which he felt did not put enough emphasis on the impacts to public health. 

“The withdrawal actually has significant impacts on public health,” he told the BLM.

Atencio told NM Political Report that he would like to see a human health analysis.

Oil and gas development potential

David Fosdeck, an environmental activist from Farmington, analyzed where oil and gas wells are located within the proposed withdrawal area. He found that much of the active development is along the Great North Road—an ancestral Puebloan road that connected Chaco with outlying communities.

Fosdeck said there’s been very little interest from oil companies in the withdrawal area. 

He found that of the 911 wells in the withdrawal area, more than half of them have been plugged. Only 35, or four percent, are considered new wells and he said those were mainly wells that one company inherited when it purchased another company’s assets.

This included sites not only on federal lands but also on state, tribal and private lands.

According to the environmental assessment, there are 80 existing leases within the federal withdrawal area. Of those leases, 78 have at least one well on them. That will allow those leases to be renewed. The other two leases will expire next year if a well is not developed on them. The withdrawal will not prevent those leases from being developed.

The environmental assessment estimates that the withdrawal could lead to 47 fewer wells being developed. These wells include 20 horizontal wells and 27 vertical wells. This would result in 49 fewer jobs, representing less than 6 percent of the total employment in the fossil fuel industries in the region.

The environmental assessment further estimates a $12 million loss in economic contributions per well per year.

Because the environmental assessment does not take into account future development of existing leases that will not be impacted by the withdrawal, those numbers are likely higher than what will actually occur.

Most of the oil extraction in the Chaco area is happening to the east of the proposed withdrawal.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso represents an area outside of the withdrawal that has been heavily impacted by oil and gas extraction in recent years. Tso is concerned about the health impacts of extractive industries, including emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds. 

“The microenvironment basically has a footprint that is in this case hundreds of miles,” Tso said.

He said that methane plumes from oil and gas development can impact communities miles away from the site and that carbon emissions are impacting climate change.

While oil and gas development has benefitted the state, country and San Juan County, the Navajo Nation, Tso said, remains an energy sacrifice zone that does not benefit from the paved roads, parks or pools that the oil and gas revenue has allowed in places like Farmington.

He said there’s still a lot of potential for oil extraction in places like the Permian Basin that would not impact sacred sites.

He has been pushing for what he calls landscape-scale protection of the Greater Chaco region. 

The environmental assessment states that there are 125 known Chacoan outliers within the Farmington Field Office. Of those, 21 are on BLM managed lands and nine of those 21 are within the proposed withdrawal area. Two of the outliers that are outside of the withdrawal area would benefit from it by proximity.

Landscape protection could mean protecting the outliers as well as other archaeological sites. This could also include protection of the Dinetah defensive sites. These archaeological sites are located in the Navajo Dam area, including Largo Canyon and Crow Mesa, where there is currently a lot of extraction occurring. 

Uranium and coal mining

Even if there is limited interest in developing oil and gas leases within the proposed withdrawal area, Tso said the withdrawal is still important because it impacts more than just oil and gas. It would also prevent coal and uranium mining for 20 years.

Tso pointed to areas on a map where there have been past proposals for coal mining or where the legacy pollution from uranium mining remains within the withdrawal area. The BLM’s environmental assessment found little potential for future coal or uranium mining, though the deposits do exist within the withdrawal area. 

According to the environmental assessment, about 294,000 acres within the withdrawal area are suitable for coal leasing, although the BLM does not anticipate there will be any new coal operations within the next two decades.

Uranium mining ended in New Mexico in 2002, however the Grants uranium district was once one of the largest producers of uranium in the country. This district includes areas within the withdrawal, including parts of the Nose Rock, Chaco Canyon Church Rock-Crownpoint, Smith Lake, and Ambrosia Lake subdistricts. Several mines are still being decommissioned.

Tso spoke about mining that occurred near Crownpoint. He said that water pumped out of the valley flowed down to a dam near Lake Valley.

“That environmental impact was never studied,” he said.

Recent exploration for uranium has been southwest and southeast of the proposed withdrawal, according to the environmental assessment. The environmental assessment further states that uranium could be extracted at a lower cost in other states or foreign countries.

However there are more than 100 unpatented uranium mining claims staked within the withdrawal area.

While there could be economic impacts from the withdrawal, the environmental assessment said there are also benefits. 

“Through a reduction of exploration activities as a source of noise and emissions over the next 20 years, the proposed withdrawal could have a positive impact on the Chaco region’s scenic and cultural values, with accompanying benefits to the quality of experiences for recreational users,” it states.

That could include reduction in light pollution. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is recognized as an international dark sky park.

Jillian Aragon, a spokesperson for the BLM’s Farmington Field Office, said the office will submit the withdrawal package to Haaland. Haaland will then review that and, if approved, she would issue a public land order and the BLM would deliver a report to Congress.