The San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado has been a hydrocarbon extraction hotspot since the 1920s. At least 40,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in this 10,000-square-mile geologic bowl. Natural gas was the hot commodity. Then, around 2010, horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing opened up oil deposits closer to Chaco Canyon and the Navajo communities of Nageezi, Lybrook and Counselor.
Read my High Country News story on the Indigenous activists pushing back against the drilling onslaught.
Newly drilled wells are “flared,” meaning that methane, nitrogen gas used in fracking, and other undesirable byproducts are burnt off.
The recent oil boom has resulted in a major uptick in truck traffic on the clay roads of the area. The roads are hard and dusty when dry, but turn into muddy, slippery messes in the rain.
Most of the recent oil drilling in the Chaco region has been done by WPX Energy, an Oklahoma-based company. The company recently sold all of its San Juan Basin assets.
Much of the drilling and fracking is done by contractors that may come from as far away as Texas or Wyoming. When locals are hired for the well-paying jobs, the money doesn’t stick around in the rural communities because there’s no economic infrastructure in place for capturing the cash and leveraging it for the benefit of the community.
Pumpjack near Pierre’s Site, a major Chacoan outlier about 10 miles outside the park boundary.
Oil and gas infrastructure is woven into the landscape of the San Juan Basin. Late light catches this equipment, with Huerfanito Peak in the background.
Methane, nitrogen and other gases are flared off at a recently drilled oil well near Nageezi, New Mexico. Carbon dioxide is used to stimulate oil and gas production.
Horses and a pumpjack near Pierre’s Site.
A constant stream of trucks went in and out of this drilling site during a major frack job in August 2017.
Daniel Tso is a former Navajo Nation tribal council delegate and has long watchdogged the oil and gas industry in this region.
Truck traffic jams are a not uncommon occurrence on the clay roads near Chaco.
A natural gas well on the badlands below Angel Peak.
Landscape detail in the badlands that Georgia O’Keefe often painted, calling it the “Black Place.” There are several oil wells amongst these badlands.
Pumpjack visible between lichen-covered masonry blocks at Pierre’s Site. Though the structures here are protected, the ambience is not.
Pierre’s site (with structures on the conical hilltop and at its foot), as viewed from the Acropolis. Note drilling rig in background right.
A line of natural gas wells and associated tanks leading up to Huerfano Peak, or Dzil Na’oodilii, a significant spot in the Navajo world.
A water tower in the fields of the Navajo Agricultural Projects Industry is silhouetted against evening sky.
Lybrook natural gas processing plant.
A possible Chaco-era shrine atop a mound above Kutz Canyon, at what may be the northern terminus of the Great North Road. The La Plata Mountains can be seen in the distance.
A natural gas processing plant outside of Bloomfield, New Mexico, has virtually swallowed up a Catholic cemetery. Virgen de Guadalupe with men working on distilling columns.
Art on building near Lybrook.
Badlands near Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Place.”
Badlands near Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Place,” surrounded by oil development.
Badlands at Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Place.”
Poster on the wall of the Ojo Encino Chapter House. Chapters are the most local political subdivision of the Navajo Nation, and they have taken a leading role in the fight against oil and gas drilling. Read more about it here.
RIVER OF LOST SOULS: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster Like this: Like Loading...
Jonathan P. Thompson
Journalist, editor and writer focusing on the Western United States and its landscapes, communities, and cultures. Creator of Land Desk. Author of "River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster" (Torrey House Press 2018), "Behind the Slickrock Curtain" (Lost Souls Press 2020), and the forthcoming "Sagebrush Empire: A journey into the heart of the public land wars" (Torrey House 2021).
View all posts by Jonathan P. Thompson