Fracking is another in a long list of incalculable losses that native peoples across North America have suffered. In the last decade alone, the US EPA stripped nearly 40 tribes of their ability to make fundamental decisions regarding fracking, agricultural pollution, and the dumping of toxic waste on their own lands.
Two recent accidents on tribal land account for just 1% of oil- and gas-related incidents in northwestern New Mexico in 2019, according to statistics kept by the New Mexico oil conservation division (OCD). Since those two, there have been another 317 accidents in the region, including oil spills, fires, blowouts, and gas releases. There were 3,600 oil and gas spills over the previous decade, both smaller and larger.
A land infused with centuries of indigenous history is now dotted with oil and gas wells, resembling more of an industrial landscape that a testimonial to the human-nature interface. Accident sites seem to evade the attention of the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which, according to tribal members, hasn’t listened to their concerns about drilling in the area. A rectangular grid of private lands, federal lands, and Navajo Nation off-reservation trust lands are managed by the BIA on behalf of the Navajo and represents a clash of differing jurisdictions, rules, and interests.
That frustration has touched off dozens of lawsuits — and more to come if the pattern doesn’t change. The tribes and environmental groups are looking to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe — and her efforts to protect the Chaco area in order to gain a greater voice in federal oil, gas, and mining decisions.
From the Navajo Point of View
The most recent wave of drilling started around 2009 when land agents called Navajo families to the Chapter house to sign leases for the oil beneath their homes. The families were thrilled by the signing bonus. What they didn’t know is that their land sat atop vast oil resources. “When you have more than 70% unemployment and you have more than 70% of the population living in abject poverty, you can’t fault them for signing,” Daniel Tso, chairman of the health, education and human services Committee of the Navajo Nation Council, says.
Tso blames both the Bureau of Land Management, which manages leasing rights, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages land rights on behalf of those living on Navajo trust lands.
In February 2019, a burst water line went unnoticed due to its remote location. By the time the situation could be remedied, more than 1,400 barrels of fracking slurry mixed with crude oil had drained off the wellsite owned by Enduring Resources and into a snowy wash. Almost 59,000 gallons of the slurry flowed more than a mile downstream toward Chaco Culture national historical park. This network of historic archaeological sites holds Unesco world heritage status and is of spiritual importance to Navajo and Puebloan people in the region.
“To a non-indigenous person, they [are] ruins. But to an indigenous Pueblo person, they’re still active sites that are used in spiritual ways,” said Julia Bernal, the environmental justice director at the Pueblo Action Alliance, an indigenous sustainability organization formed in the wake of Standing Rock. “The fight has constantly been, ‘These are sacred sites.’ But the non-indigenous power is like, ‘Well prove to us these are sacred sites.’ How can we prove that when it’s our beliefs?”
The slurry seeped into the Chaco stream bed and vanished from view.
And it’s not just Navajo land that’s suffering from fracking. Oklahoma’s Orwellian Commission on Cooperative Sovereignty, is heavily represented by the oil and gas industry. Larry Nichols, founder and CEO of fracking giant Devon Energy, is commission chair, and fellow fracking pioneer Harold Hamm is executive chair and founder of Continental Resources, which has holdings that are “recognized to be among the best deep oil inventories in the industry.”
The Commission has turned its back on the exponential rise of earthquakes in the region, attributable to fracking.
What is Fracking? Why is it So Devastating to Natural Resources?
In the past two decades, a fracking boom has helped the US become the global leader in natural gas and crude oil production, which the Trump administration described in October, 2020 as “a strategic asset in driving sustained, long-term economic growth, achieving environmental goals, and enhancing the national security interests of the United States.” A ban on hydraulic fracturing, they threatened, would result in the loss of “millions of jobs, price spikes at the gasoline pump, and higher electricity costs for all Americans.” Proponents of fracking say that that increased natural gas use — made possible by fracking — has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years.
What that report failed to note were the serious risks associated with fracking to the environment, our health, and the earth’s climate.
Today’s fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — blasts enormous quantities of water, chemicals, and sand into impermeable rock formations that contain natural gas or oil from shale and other forms. The high pressures splinter the rock, allowing the once-trapped gas and oil to flow to the surface.
The EPA identified 1,084 different chemicals reported as used in fracking formulas between 2005 and 2013; those chemicals, along with many others used in fracking fluid, are considered hazardous to human health. In the EPA’s final report, demurred that scientific evidence revealed that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.
Both human error and equipment failure due to fracking can cause spills and leaks, and some spills are known to have reached surface water resources. The NRDC argues that, although evidence continues to mount about the negative impact of fracking on our water, air, and health, the industry remains seriously under-regulated. Oil and gas operations benefit from a range of exemptions or limitations in regulatory coverage within the bedrock environmental statutes that are meant to protect Americans from contaminated water, hazardous waste, and polluted air.
Native Tribes Seek Systemic Change from Biden Administration
With President Biden’s election and Ms. Haaland’s confirmation, tribal communities are looking for more than vague pledges. Among other efforts, they want changes to federal land use policy to minimize environmental damage from energy projects. The intersection of federal land use and environmental and energy policy is also at the heart of the tribal agenda for the new administration.
Biden has reiterated his campaign pledge that his administration will set a target of cutting US emissions to net zero no later than 2050. Perhaps, as part of the global climate summit, we’ll hear announcements about increased local protections for native lands, especially from the devastating effects of fracking.
Image retrieved from NASA (public domain)