UPDATE: On June 4, the Bureau of Land Management withdrew its opposition to H.R. 2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act, which would permanently withdraw federal lands in the buffer zone (see below) from mineral leasing and development. This is another small step forward for the Chaco region.

In reading the dozens of news accounts about the recently imposed moratorium on drilling around Chaco, one might conclude that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt after being “blown away” by the ancient Puebloan structures there, had stepped up and saved the entire landscape from a looming platoon of drill rigs. That is, unfortunately, not the case.

Bernhardt did indeed promise to hold off on any more leasing or drilling within ten miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park boundaries for at least a year. It’s a small step forward, but it is also woefully inadequate, and does very little to protect the ancient or existing communities that are most threatened by the current oil boom.

Chaco sits south of the center of the 10,000-square-mile, oil- gas- and coal-rich San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico. No portion of the San Juan Basin has been spared from the drill rig or the dragline. The northern end, which reaches into Colorado, is pockmarked with coalbed methane wells, mostly drilled in the last thirty years. Oil wells drilled in the 1920s sit on the Hogback Monocline near Shiprock, overlooking two huge coal power plants that feed off the Fruitland coal formation. There are even a handful of plugged wells hugging the boundary of Chaco.RigWorkersVertical

But over the last decade, the drillers primarily have targeted the Gallup play, a strip of oil-bearing Mancos Shale in the south-central part of the San Juan Basin. They use big, shale-busting rigs that drill thousands of feet into the earth, first vertically and then horizontally. To free up the oil they shoot 1 million gallons of water, combined with sand and a slew of chemicals, into the well at high pressures.

Bigger rigs and deeper wells have a bigger impact on the surroundings, which has concerned Chaco advocates as the rigs creep closer to the park. The moratorium will ease their worries, somewhat. It means that visitors to the park won’t have their experience marred by the round-the-clock churning of drill rigs or their night sky views washed out by the glow of floodlights or flares. It means that the important but oft-overlooked context surrounding the park — the remains of cornfields or shrines or Chacoan “roads” — will not get bulldozed to make way for a well pad or access road, at least for now.

But the moratorium, together with the park covers only 450 square miles. That’s a mere shard of the Greater Chaco Region, which covers tens of thousands of square miles and includes dozens of communities that were part of the Chacoan civilization, which lasted for nearly three centuries beginning around 900 A.D. An estimated 50,000 people lived in the San Juan Basin at the time, and perhaps as many as 100,000 in the Greater Chaco Region, and now the landscape is covered with remnants of that civilization, from pueblos built in the thick-walled Chacoan style, to segments of monumental “roads,” to ceremonial structures.

Bernhardt’s moratorium leaves most of this landscape unprotected. In fact, the buffer zone doesn’t even reach as far as Pierre’s House, a cluster of spectacular Chaco-era structures that lies along the North Road (The Chaco Cultural Heritage Withdrawal Area, covered by a bill recently introduced in Congress, stretches the buffer zone to include Pierre’s Site). While Pierre’s Site has its own protective zone immediately surrounding it, associated fields and architectural features nearby remain open to drilling and well pad, access road and pipeline construction. 

Pierre'sMap
Pierre’s Site, which sits on the Great North Road, is already surrounded by oil and gas wells.

Meanwhile, oil companies haven’t shown much interest in the area immediately surrounding the park, anyway. While a few parcels have come up for lease in the last decade, most were deferred after the Bureau of Land Management — which oversees oil and gas development in the region — was hit by a blizzard of protests.

Meanwhile, the communities of Nageezi, Lybrook and Counselors haven’t been so lucky. They sit well outside of the buffer zone in what happens to be the richest part of the Gallup Play. Hundreds of wells have been drilled over the past ten years or so, and the people who live here have been hit hard. Oilfield trucks rumble up and down the clay roads, kicking up fine-grained moon dust that coats your skin, clogs your nose, gets into your lungs. The drill rigs grind into the night, roaring flares blot out the stars, wells leak methane and benzene and even hydrogen sulfide. Highway 550, long-known by the state troopers as a “killing zone,” has become even more dangerous with all the truck traffic. In 2016, a new well complex amid these communities caught fire. Explosions rent the night, and balls of flame and black smoke billowed relentlessly for days.

Community members and their advocates have sought relief, asking the BLM to stop leasing land and issuing drilling permits until they complete an analysis of the cumulative effects of thousands of horizontal wells that are expected to be drilled in coming years. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and the BLM continues to operate under a 2003 plan, even after a federal court found that the plan was inadequate.

Bernhardt’s temporary moratorium, meanwhile, provides no succor whatsoever. And so, while headlines celebrate Bernhardt’s apparent epiphany and newfound openness to conservation, the people of the Chaco region continue to suffer the side-effects of society’s addiction to fossil fuels.

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RLSCoverSmallJonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of Colorado Book Award finalist River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

 Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

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