photo of entrance to chaco canyon for sierra club article on history of oil discovery in area

By Robert Tohe, Our Wild America New Mexico coordinator

Chaco Canyon’s ancient legacy and the oil and gas industry have been on a collision course since oil was first discovered in 1920s.

The early role of the federal government, through the Department of Interior’s Indian Office, was to expedite private enterprise to lease and exploit oil resources within the Mancos Shale. Traditional headmen for the Navajo remained steadfast and refused to grant land for oil leases.

Navajo people considered traditional headmen as the governing body and authority to grant leases or refuse outside offers for its resources. However, the Indian Office’s repeated incursions in Navajo authority on behalf of oil corporations resulted in usurping the authority of Navajo headmen over oil leasing.

In 1922, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Falls decided that since these oil-rich lands were created by executive orders, Navajos could be removed from control over oil leasing. The Indian Office made an end run and self-appointed a group of government-selected individuals, creating a separate tribal council to approve oil leasing, while recognized by the Department of the Interior. The current form of Navajo Tribal Government has its roots in those events in the 1920s.

Not much has changed. A recent summit by members of the Chaco Coalition resulted in a hand-delivered letter to BLM Farmington Field Office Director Victoria Barr to “renew our call for an immediate moratorium on all permitting of drilling, leasing of further lands for drilling, and approval of related infrastructure, including the Piñon Pipeline, until the BLM completes its study of impacts related to fracking in the Greater Chaco region and such development has received approval in the pending RMP (Resource Management Plan).”

The letter also demands a comprehensive study of the impacts of oil and gas development on community health, the environment, and cultural resources, as well as a study of the economics of an alternative-energy development scenario that includes a just transition to a clean-energy future for the Greater Chaco region.

What you can do

Join a Sept. 18-20 field trip to Farmington and meet with Navajo leaders on the Chaco drilling issue.

Western Environmental Law Center is hosting a film and discussion with leaders involved in the Chaco struggle. See westernlaw.org for more information. Email riogrande.chapter@sierraclub.org to receive action alerts on this issue.

Feature Photo By John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA
License [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The dirty history of oil near Chaco
Tagged on: