A spiderweb of roads connects mostly natural-gas wells in the San Juan Basin south of Farmington. Advocates argue better planning could prevent hodgepodge development in southern areas of the basin where gas and oil companies are starting to use hydraulic fracturing to extract oil.
CHACO – From the air a spiderweb of roads connecting oil and gas wells crisscrossing the desert south of Farmington is visible, cutting into a delicate desert landscape that holds sacred sites and immense energy reserves.
As the seemingly hodgepodge network of wells creeps closer to the boundary of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, created to preserve ancient ruins, environmental and tribal groups worry that an opportunity for better planning is being missed.
About 90 percent of the public land in the San Juan Basin south of Farmington already has been leased for largely natural gas drilling, but near Lybrook and Counselors along U.S. Highway 550, a new network of oil wells developed by hydraulic fracturing is on the rise – and companies plan to invest millions to expand production.
The aerial tour of Chaco and the surrounding landscape was provided to the Herald and many local journalists by the Partnership for Responsible Business, a nonprofit arm of the Green Chamber, a Santa Fe-based group.
Environmental groups argue if the wells are built close to Chaco Canyon and along a corridor that runs to other ancient sites, they might destroy cultural heritage and endanger Chaco’s designation as one of the best places in the U.S. to star gaze, something its ancient inhabitants are known for.
“We don’t want Chaco to be an island surrounded by hundreds of wells,” said Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest.
The oil wells drilled near Lybrook about 15 miles east of the park must employ flaring – a process of burning off excess methane – to make the oil pure enough to transport. Environmental groups worry flaring closer to the park would make stars less visible.
Drilling along a corridor northwest of Chaco also could hurt archaeologists’ ability to conduct research.
“Chaco is not a single place on the map; it’s the center of the system,” said Barbara West, the former superintendent at Chaco Canyon.
For the people of the Jemez Pueblo, the region holds sacred sites where they honor their ancestors, but oil companies have not consulted them about greater development that could desecrate the sites, said the group’s governor, Joshua Madalena.
“They are not thinking about the spirituality of those lands,” he said.
The pueblo also is concerned about the possible contamination of its drinking water.
Environmental groups, including the San Juan Citizen Alliance, would like the Bureau of Land Management to create a master leasing plan that would prevent a sprawling network of roads near wells and look at the region in a wholistic way. They don’t wish to shut industry down but encourage better planning.
BLM staff members in Farmington are revising the overarching resource management plan for the region, which directs how wells are managed in addition to all other aspects of management.
They are working to address oil and gas concerns and develop several alternative plans, said Gary Torres, field manager for the office. They expect to release it at the end of 2016.
“We’re trying to do things better than we did before,” Torres said.
While the plan is in development, oil and gas companies are drilling wells under the 2003 plan and an expedited permitting process.
Encana, one of the largest companies in the basin, has keyed in on the area and plans to invest $300 million to $350 million to drill between 45 and 50 new exploratory wells, said Doug Hock, a company representative.
Encana, WPX Energy and Logos Resources together plan to invest $600 million within the next 12 to 18 months, Torres said.
The BLM has to approve any drilling on its land. This summer, Torres’ office chose to defer some leases less than five miles from the park until the planning process is complete.
But the agency owns only 19 percent of the land within a five-mile radius of the park, so much of the decision to develop lies with the tribal members, tribal governments and other groups, Torres said.
But without a comprehensive approach to development that involves all the stakeholders, advocates worry that irreparable damage will be done to unique heritage site.
“A piecemeal approach doesn’t tell anyone where things are going to be in five years,” Reed said.