A plan to bar oil and gas exploration within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon National Park for the next 20 years has drawn a quick response from some Western Republicans.

The announcement came shortly after tribal leaders met with President Joe Biden at the White House. Many of the tribal leaders have been fighting oil and gas exploration in the area, sacred to several tribes and one of the most important collections of prehistoric ruins in the southwest.

However, the Navajo Tribal Council opposed the ban, saying it should be more limited.

Chaco Canyon Park includes some 30,000 acres in northwest New Mexico and was set aside in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Chaco Canyon in the 9th through 13th centuries was home to a complex Pueblo culture, linked to a large area by still mysterious, exquisitely constructed roads.

The temporary ban on oil and gas drilling there comes in the wake of lawsuits by environmental groups that have temporarily blocked fracking operations on the edge of Petrified Forest National Park to extract helium. The federal government agreed to undertake additional environmental studies when faced by the lawsuit.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history, defended the Chaco Canyon lease withdrawal.

“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked and thrived in that high desert community. Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations. I value and appreciate the many tribal leaders, elected officials and stakeholders who have persisted in their work to conserve this special area.”

Rep. Paul Gosar blasted the decision to pause issuing of drilling permits near Chaco.

“Today’s latest land grab by the Biden administration will strip hundreds of Navajo allottees of their rights to their lands by imposing an unscientific and overreaching buffer around Chaco Canyon,” said Rep. Gosar in a release. “We heard from these allottees directly and urged the DOI to listen and reject this reckless policy. This action is another attack on America’s energy independence by the Biden administration. They are determined to shut down federal lands to all energy development while begging foreign countries for more oil. “

The 24th Navajo Nation Council in a release opposed the ban on new leases, saying the federal government had not adequately consulted with the tribe.

“The Biden Administration bypassed previous requests to Congress for field hearings and for leaders to hear directly from our Navajo families affected in the Chaco Canyon region. The position of the Navajo Nation Council is for the creation of a five-mile buffer within and around this sacred site. It is important that the federal government consider and work with our Navajo allottees to further advance development. The Administration must respect our tribal sovereignty and what the government to government relationship entails,” said Speaker Seth Damon (Bááhaalí, Chichiltah, Manuelito, Red Rock, Rock Springs, Tséyatoh).

“Protecting the interests of the Navajo people in the Eastern Agency is vital to our roles as the governing of the Navajo Nation. We must ensure the livelihood of Navajo allotted land owners in the greater Chaco Canyon area are maintained. The Navajo Nation through a resolution has provided a compromise to also protect this sacred area from mineral development. The Biden administration has to work with us to find a solution that meets our needs and that is this five-mile buffer zone,” said Resources and Development Committee Chair Rickie Nez (T’iistsoh Sikaad, Nenahnezad, Upper Fruitland, Tsé Daa K’aan, Newcomb, San Juan).

The Interior Department indicated the ban would affect only federal lands, not tribal or private lands. It would also not affect existing leases.

Meanwhile, the federal government has undertaken additional environmental studies of a plan to frack for hydrogen near the border of the Petrified Forest.

Environmental groups agreed to suspend a lawsuit pending the outcome of those environmental studies.

That lawsuit involves several parcels owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management over the Coconino aquifer. Fracking involves injecting high pressure water and other fluids into underground natural gas and oil deposits. The pressurized fluids force oil, natural gas and hydrogen out of the rocks, which can be captured by well sites.

Environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians argued the process could contaminate ground water, including perhaps the underground flows that feed the Little Colorado River, which in turn feeds into the Grand Canyon. The drilling companies argued the fracking operations will take place in a portion of the underground water table that’s so full of minerals that it’s not useful.

The environmental groups also argued the fracking fluids could leave toxic chemicals at the surface.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

(2) comments

Dr Kevin L Gibson

As a double degreed Mining Engineer, who spent the last 20 years of his career working for Saudi Aramco the worlds largest oil company, I'm very disturbed by the lack of accuracy and political bias of the above article.

Firstly, the article fails to be geographically accurate. The areas referenced as being near the Petrified Forest is a region already developed by Ranger LLC who already has permits to perform an acid fracking campagne of 80 wells to extract helium over an area of the Coconino Aquifer. This area is of low quality of water however it still flows ultimately to Lake Mead. Obviously pollution of Lake Mead would affect the 40 million people down stream in both AZ and adjacent States.

The release of BLM leases, which was stopped by environmental groups, were in the location of Woodruff and the Little Colorado River. This area is over the pristine potable water of the Coconino Aquifer and further more supports endangered species (which these days includes humans) .

The BLM has not undertaken environmental studies to date and are presently seeking public comment.

The authors flippant description of fracking as being the injection of water and other fluids to force gases out of the strata is inaccurate. The other "fluids" are in fact the most dangerous factor, and the mining companies do not have to declare "other fluids" they are using due to the Halliburton Loophole in the Clean Water Act. These chemicals are usually toxic. In the case of acid stimulation (fracking by any other name) the primary chemical is hydrofluoric acid, which is the acid you see on movies where serial killers need to dissolve human bodies. It is sufficiently powerful that it can eat through glass bottles and turn the local sandstone into mush!

Rep. Paul Gosar is pushing for business as usual which is the kind of mentality that got us into this climate crises in the first place. Americas oil independence is a phrase designed to gain popularity with those who may not understand the long term consequences. When I retired from Saudi Aramco they estimated that in approximately 25 years the Kingdom would consume all of it's oil production and no longer export oil. That was 11 years ago. In fact it would be better to buy oil at the present $71 per barrel and leave our oil in the ground for the future when it will be worth probably double this.

It is no coincidence that the Saudi's have been implementing substantial solar energy projects. These Arabs plan for their next generations not bottom line profit for the next quarter.

If we are to have any chance in saving the planet, which I believe we do, we must reduce the consumption of fossil fuels by a phenomenal amount. The internal combustion engine as the means of personal and commercial transportation must become a thing of the past, as it will do in the UK in the next 4 years, when manufacturing of internal combustion engines will be banned.

Stop risking water supplies which we can't survive without for quarterly profits. Helium can and has been extracted without the use of toxic chemicals. I would recommend purchasing an electric vehicle before gas exceed prices beyond your imagination!!


Thank you, Dr. Gibson, for your wise comments gained from your very relevant experiences. The “fracking fluids could leave toxic chemicals at the surface” mentioned in the WMI article is also a reason to stop this dangerous action. We know how far air pollution travels, and this could add, for everyone in the state and beyond, dangerous toxic elements.

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