May 22, 2018

Judge Reverses Course, Permits Drilling in Chaco Canyon

Eliza Racine

The Navajo (Diné) nation and their environmentalist allies celebrated a partial win for cultural preservation in early April, when federal judge James Browning agreed that hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — near Chaco Canyon, N.M violates federal law.

However, on April 23, Browning reversed his ruling in favor of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and concluded instead that the assessments of the environmental and cultural impacts surrounding Chaco Canyon were adequate.

Since 2015, indigenous communities and environmental groups — like Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians and the Natural Resources Defense Council — have fought against further oil and gas development as the BLM issued 200 more permits for fracking in the area over the previous years.

Attorneys Samantha Ruscavage-Barz and Kyle Tisdel of Wild Earth Guardians and the Western Environmental Law Center, respectively, led the lawsuit to stop further oil and gas permits until an updated environmental study was completed. They also argued drilling’s effects violated both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

Meanwhile, the BLM asserted that they were updating their environmental assessments while using a 2003 resource plan for current projects. Oil and gas companies like WPX Energy Production LLC and ConocoPhillips Co. jumped to defend the BLM, worried that if drilling was shut down due to “remote and speculative” complaints, operators would lose millions and it would threaten the nation’s “energy independence.”

Despite promises to do better, the BLM started the process of leasing land without tribal consultation, and as of Browning’s recent opinion, there is no updated resource plan.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the Department of Interior has put up 12 million acres of land for sale to the fossil fuel industry: more than double what was offered for sale during the George W. Bush administration.

From the Rocky Mountains to the Wyoming and Montana plains, lands which were once off limits thanks to conservation efforts are now subject to more oil, gas, and other extractive resource projects.

Despite protest, 843 acres in the Chaco Canyon were sold by the BLM for $3 million on Jan. 25, 2017.

If more extractive projects are allowed to be built, it will be a devastating blow to the rich cultural and socio-ecological history of this region, being a point in the Hopi and Pueblo migration that holds spiritual connection to ancestral homelands.

The 10-mile windy Chaco Canyon is also home to Pueblo Bonito, or “Great House”: a three acre complex of 800 rooms where the ancient Anasazi peoples lived. It includes religious centers dug into the earth — capable of accommodating hundreds of worshippers on par to the Aztec and Mayan temples — dams and reservoirs to collect rainwater in the harsh desert climate, walls decorated in pictographs of astrological and solar events, and lighthouses for signal fires. The Anasazi used this location to oversee trade from the California coast to Central America and employed meticulous astronomical observations to determine dates for religious festivals of planting and harvesting.

Unfortunately, as their society grew too big to properly accommodate the population and as power struggles rose, the Anasazi abandoned Pueblo Bonito in 1130 CE. The complex was discovered by Diné nomads 600 years later, but, out of respect for remains and spiritual energy of the site, they never occupied the ruins. Chaco Canyon was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Despite the site’s protected status and its link to a still mostly unknown past, Browning ignored concerns of the damage drilling would bring. In his 132 page opinion withdrawing his original ruling, he argued that because most of the BLM’s oil and gas wells are ten miles away from Chaco Canyon, there was no need to consider effects on the historical sites, therefore it did not violate NHPA. He also upheld that the BLM’s resource management plan from 2003 was sufficient enough in consideration for environmental impacts of fracking.

In fracking, well bores are drilled thousands of feet into the earth to reach oil and natural gas. Once the desired depth is reached, a mixture of water, “fracking fluid”— often containing many hazardous chemicals— and sand is forced into the borehole under tremendous pressure to crack the living bedrock and suck out the plant-killing fossil fuels stored there. The dangerous process leads to increased air and water pollution, fracking-induced earthquakes, and increased health complications for those living near the wells.

The proliferation of oil wells in Wyoming created an air quality worse than Los Angeles’ with an ozone level at 124 parts per billion in March 2011— which is two-thirds higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum limit of 75 per billion — and rising cases of people with respiratory health problems. Throughout 2015, Oklahoma experienced 857 fracking-induced earthquakes with a 3.0 magnitude or higher, which is more than the rest of the 49 states combined. In his time as attorney general in Oklahoma, current EPA administrator and well-known climate change denier Scott Pruitt remained silent on the issue.

In March 2018, Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility released a 266-page report extensively detailing the impact of fracking on the environment and communities near the wells. Researchers found increased cases of asthma and birth defects and risks of radioactive contamination. Even more astonishing, oil and gas companies remain secretive on what carcinogenic chemicals are used for fracking, putting workers at more risk than civilians for cancer, burns, and other injuries.

“There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends,” the study concludes.

The BLM has no excuse for not updating its research and for putting historical sites, the environment, and public health at risk via fracking. Browning’s overturned decision is another assault on Native America in attempts to placate the fossil fuel industry. Enough is enough. No more blatant negligence around tribal land rights and climate change denial.