Fracking Boom Expands Near Chaco Canyon, Threatens Navajo Ancestral Lands and People


Beneath a giant methane gas cloud recently identified by NASA, the oil and gas fracking industry is rapidly expanding in northwestern New Mexico. Flares that light up the night sky at drilling sites along the stretch of Route 550 that passes through the San Juan Basin, which sits on top of the oil rich Mancos Shale, are tell-tale indicators of the fracking boom. 

Much of the land being fracked belongs to the federal government. The rest is a mixture of state, private and Navajo Nation land.

The region is known to the Diné (Navajo) as Dinétah, the land of their ancestors.  It is home of the Bisti Badlands and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site.

Flares burning at fracking industry site on federal land near Counselor, New Mexico ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Bisti Badlands. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

“The land in the Chaco Canyon area has lots of sacred places. The corporations don’t care. They come and go and tear up the places. They do their thing and away they go—and somebody else, somewhere else is getting rich off this land, not us,” Sarah Jane White, a Diné environmental activist, told DeSmogBlog, “Fracking doesn’t benefit the Native American people.”

Sarah Jane White and Victoria Gutierrez, mother and daughter Diné environmental activists. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Ruins of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is tasked with managing resources on federal land including leasing land for extraction.

“The BLM jumped the gun on fracking for oil in the area,” Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance, told DeSmogBlog. 

The agency’s last resource management plan for the area was created in 2003 before drilling in the Mancos Shale region was considered technically or economically viable. 

A new analysis of industrial development’s impact on the community and its environment is required before such development is permitted. However, the BLM Farmington Field Office issued permits for over 100 wells for exploratory purposes without conducting a new comprehensive analysis.

Eisenfeld suspected oil field development was imminent when federal funds were earmarked to fix a road that cuts across the Mancos Shale region in 2008. By 2013, flares started illuminating the sky between Counselor and the entrance to Chaco Canyon. 

“Within two years, the area went from undeveloped for oil to becoming a mess. Lack of planning is resulting in wasting natural gas by flaring,” Eisenfeld said. 

Frack job in process in Counselor, New Mexico.  ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Industry site on federal land in Lybrook, New Mexico. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Environmental groups argue industry is past the exploratory phase. The BLM’s consideration of the Saddle Butte San Juan Midstream, LLC Piñon Pipeline project, a 130-mile oil pipeline that would transport the extracted oil out of the area, makes it evident industry is in a production phase. 

In October 2014, environmental protection groups called for a moratorium on fracking and a halt to new leases until the BLM finishes a new analysis.

By our estimate, the BLM has approved approximately 100 new drilling permits for Mancos shale drilling and fracking. Approval of these permits is wholly inappropriate, contrary to law, and must cease immediately”, states a letter to the BLM signed by the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Chaco Alliance, the Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians.

The BLM rejected a moratorium but agreed to delay issuing more permits until the end of the year. “We are still approving APDs [applications for permitting to drill] and doing permitting,” Peggy Deaton, the BLM representative responsible for the new analysis, told DeSmogBlog.

Environmental groups may resort to legal action against the BLM if they deem it necessary to stop new industrial activity commencing before the agency finishes the required amendment to their resource assessment plan, which is not expected to be signed and implemented until late 2016.

In an effort to protect Chaco Canyon, The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Archaeology Southwest submitted recommendations for a master leasing plan to the BLM. They suggest the land between Counselor and Lybrook, next to Chaco Canyon, become a “designated development zone” while keeping the greater Chaco Canyon area off-limits. 

Eisenfeld was dismayed these groups felt the need to forsake an area where communities have already been negatively impacted by the fracking industry in order to protect Chaco Canyon.

“While the Chaco Culture National Historical Park needs protecting, indigenous communities also deserve protection from industry,” Eisenfeld says. “The proposed designated development zone throws those living in it under the bus.”

Fracking industry site on federal land in Lybrook, New Mexico. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Meanwhile, the “industry is telling Diné people fracking is safe and giving them just a little bit of money to get them to sign leases,” White told DeSmogBlog. The proposed Pinon Pipeline Project is being sold to the community as an “economic development.”

Yet few Diné see any profit from any of the industrial developments, according to White. Instead, “We pay the price in bad health – respiratory diseases, heart and kidney diseases, and diabetes.”

On January 5th, a group of Diné set off on a 200-mile journey commemorating a forced walk their ancestors took away from the area 150 years ago. 

Along the way, they are meeting with members of the Diné community who have little access to the media and are listening to their concerns about the industrial development, and giving them educational materials about fracking. They intend to raise awareness about the fracking industry’s negative impacts on their community including the health risks, damage to the roads and an increase in violent crime that typically comes with an influx of temporary oil field workers.

A group of Diné on the first day of a 200-mile walk through their ancestral homeland. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Nadine Narindrankura, on the first day of a 200-mile walk through the ancestral homeland of the Diné. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

People are not aware of how devastating horizontal drilling is going to be to this area,” Nadine Narindrankura, a Diné youth taking part in the walk, told DeSmogBlog.

Our ancestors sacrificed their lives for this land. What are we showing for it?”  Nicholas Ashley, another Diné youth, asked. “We are looking at resource colonization,” he says.

Despite being at the forefront of energy extraction, our people do not see its benefits; approximately 1/4 of our people today live without electricity and running water on the Navajo Nation, while our economy functions at an unemployment rate of 60%, and our young people are leaving due to lack of opportunity,” their group’s mission statement says.

Those taking part in the walk are no strangers to living in the shadow of industry. But to allow fracking in the last undeveloped areas they hold sacred is not something they are willing to accept without fighting back.

After walking over a dozen miles along highway 550 with trucks whizzing past the group, Narindrankura reflected that, despite the industrial activity, the beauty of the land is still ever-present.

During the second week of their walk, a propane-laden truck exploded at one of the industrial sites nearby, a reminder of the dangers the fracking industry brings with it.

Halliburton truck at a fracking industry site on Route 550 in New Mexico. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Drill site off Route 550 in Lybrook, New Mexico where hydraulic fracturing is done to extract oil. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

The group’s journey is a sign of the growing resistance indigenous peoples and environmental groups are mounting against the industrialization of the area.

If the pipeline is permitted, the fracking industry will expand exponentially,” Einsefeld warns.

Actor and environmentalist Robert Redford weighed in on the proposed pipeline in a letter to the BLM:

“I am writing today to respectfully ask that you deny Saddle Butte LLC’s permit for the Pinion Pipeline. This pipeline will forever change, and in some cases decimate lands owned by the Navajos, private owners and the state and federal government. As important, it will mean thousands of new oil wells at a time when the price of oil has plummeted and climate change threats have increased dramatically.” 

The public can submit comments on the pipeline proposal until January 30 by mail to the BLM Farmington Field Office, Attention: Scott Hall, 6251 N. College Blvd. Suite A, Farmington, NM 87402 or email to BLM[email protected]

Lead Photo: Diné on the first day of a 200-mile walk through their ancestral homeland. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at

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