The Navajo County Board of Supervisors has put off discussion of possible fracking in the Holbrook Basin.
County Manager Glenn Kephart told the board of supervisors at its June 26 meeting that it would be premature to make fracking an agenda item, in part because it falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” he said. “We’re very much engaged in the conversation.”
The prospect of fracking in the Holbrook Basin concerns some local residents and environmental groups. Nineteen conservation and tribal groups recently signed a letter calling for the BLM to halt the expansion of oil and gas leasing activity into Arizona.
The Holbrook Basin is a geological feature mostly in Navajo and Apache counties that is rich in some resources, such as potash and helium, but may also have other mineral or petrolum resources of interest to industry.
REAL AZ, a local economic development group, has been promoting the development of resources in the basin, particularly potash, for years.
Conservationists say that putting off the discussion may mean there will be no discussion at all.
“As far as the leases on the Bureau of Land Management land, we don’t feel like we have enough info to take any kind of educated stance for, or against. I have communicated with BLM about their process as well as some of the concerned citizens. We are just gathering facts right now,” said Paul Watson, Real AZ Corridor, Executive Director.
“They are effectively precluding themselves from being able to respond, and that’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot at risk for their constituents,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity.
A BLM spokesman said in June that the policy was put in place to avoid doing NEPA studies on lands that were not going to be drilled, saving the taxpayer money. Lands where leases are sold will be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“If the (leases are sold) … we would have the opportunity to comment,” Kephart said. “Our voice would be very much heard,” he added. “There’s a lot of opportunity for us to be involved.”
But conservationists say that under a new BLM policy, the BLM can bypass NEPA review.
The BLM must publish a notice 45 days before the leases are sold. Once they publish those notices, the public has 10 days to protest, said Kevin Dahl, of the National Parks Conservation Association. Some of the BLM lands available for energy leases are located very near Petrified Forest National Park.
The notices will be published July 23.
“You can rest assured that we’re going to protest,” Dahl said.
The Supervisors meet on July 24. If the BLM elects to bypass NEPA compliance, that may be the county’s last opportunity for comment.
Hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to extract oil and natural gas deposits that may have been considered out of reach years ago. The process involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground under high pressure to release these fuels. Some processes just use water, or air. Numerous reports have emerged that blame the chemicals used in fracking for poisoning groundwater. The industry disputes these reports, which range from academic papers to You-Tube videos of people lighting their tap water on fire.
Conservationists say it’s possible that companies applying for gas permits are actually interested in helium. Fracking for helium can be done just using water, which may not be harmful to local drinking water.
But using water could be a problem in an arid state like Arizona.
“Just to drill a well, you need a lot of water,” he said.
McKinnon said that acid fracking can also be used to extract helium. It is not clear which methods will be used in Arizona.
“We don’t know because there’s no environmental review,” he said.
Dahl said that some companies are better at environmental compliance than others.
“Some are very good at compliance. They say they’re going to do this, and they do it. Some say they’re going to do it and they don’t,” he said. Dahl said that it is difficult to pinpoint which companies are interested in the leases because they are going through a consulting and permitting company.
BLM lands are not the only lands that have sparked interest with oil and gas exploration companies. A Canadian firm recently announced in a press release that it has acquired more than 12,000 acres in Holbrook Basin leases from the Arizona Department of Land.
Petrified Forest National Park has also been notified that a company wants to drill inside the park. The park owns surface rights but not mineral rights. The park brings in more than 600,000 visitors annually and creates more than $45 million in economic benefits to local communities, according to the National Park Service.
Park Superintendent Brad Traver said he has not seen any specific proposals but said that any drilling operation on park lands “will have to go through environmental review.”