Fracking threatens treasured archaeological site

Chaco Cultural National Historical Park in the USA contains hundreds of archaeological sites and the ruins of an ancient Pueblo city. The World Heritage Site is now threatened by encroaching oil and gas development. John Dyer reports from Boston.

A modern day culture war is taking place between a coalition of Native Americans, archaeologists and environmentalists on the one side and oil and gas developers on the other side. (Photo credit: Allison Hill, flickr)

A modern day culture war is taking place between a coalition of Native Americans, archaeologists and environmentalists on the one side and oil and gas developers on the other side. (Photo credit: Allison Hill, flickr)

A culture war is currently taking place in New Mexico in the southwestern United States. Descendants of the Native Americans who used to live in the region have joined forces with environmentalists in a battle against the oil and gas developers of today’s energy-hungry culture. The reason: the latter want deploy hydraulic fracking near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the hunt for new energy resources.

Judge rejects fracking suspension

For now it seems as though the oil developers have won. Last week a federal judge in New Mexico rejected a request to halt hydraulic fracking on public lands near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico

A coalition of Native American groups, archaeologists, conservationists told the judge that fracking and other oil exploration was dangerous in a region that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but because it can potentially destabilise the ground and cause mini-earthquakes.

The region that the stunning stone ruins of an ancient city where thousands of ancient Pueblo people lived between 850 and 1250 CE.

“Full-scale, unregulated oil and gas development continues to impose devastating impacts on human, cultural, and environmental resources on Dinétah and surrounding areas,” said Colleen Cooley of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment.

Diné refers to the Navajo tribe, while Dinétah refers to the tribe’s homelands. The Navajo migrated into the Chaco region in the 1500s, a few hundred years after experts believe a 75-year-long drought forced the Pueblo to quit the region.

Land management rules far from perfect

Judge James Browning admitted that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, which permits fracking on public lands, was far from perfect in how it allocated oil wells. But he ruled that the agency followed the law in its plan to allow hundreds of drillers to explore for oil at the edges of the nearly 14,000-hectare park.

“The plaintiffs have put forth enough evidence to cast some doubt on the thoroughness of the BLM’s decision making, but they have not made the necessary showing that the BLM failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of its actions, or that its decision making was arbitrary and capricious,” Browning wrote in his ruling.

Over a billion already invested

Canada-based Encana Corporation and Oklahoma’s WPX Energy have drilled around 150 wells in the Mancos shale formation around the park in the last four years. BP America and ConocoPhillips have expressed interest, too. The four companies and the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organisation, joined the lawsuit to support the bureau’s permitting process.

“Encana and WPX have drilled over 100 wells in the past four years, together investing over USD 1 billion in the Mancos, and now they’re being asked to stop,” oil drill lawyer John Shepherd said during oral arguments in court last month. “It would cause enormous harm to the companies if they had to stop at this point.”

Fight not over

The Native American and conservationist groups said they would likely appeal the decision.

“While this decision is discouraging, we believe that BLM has failed the public and continues the piecemeal approval of new oil development, neglecting cumulative impacts, resulting in significant flaring waste and industrialising the landscape,” said New Mexico Coordinator Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local conservation group. “This is not over. We will reassess and challenge this injustice.”

Buffer of a few kilometres

The BLM has refused to lease land to oil drillers within 8 kilometres of the park. And it is not leasing land to new drillers within 16 kilometres of the park. But that buffer isn’t permanent, and the agency has refused to agree to prohibit drilling in the region.

What’s more, federal officials are studying the effects of fracking on the region, but critics say the federal study is only updating a 2003 plan for managing resources in the region. A more comprehensive analysis of fracking’s potential effect on the park’s ancient stone structures is necessary, they argued.

“The BLM says it hasn’t analysed this technology before and it says it needs to, but yet it continues to approve the technology to go forward with new drilling,” said attorney Samantha Ruscavage-Barz of Wild Earth Guardian, a local environmental group.

Ruins hold key to the past

The Pueblo culture was incredibly advanced, building multi-story buildings using stones and timber, mansions that contained as many as 600 rooms, kilometres of roads and city grids that functioned like calendars because they were oriented with how the sun, moon and stars passed over nearby mesas.

Because they lacked written records, however, scholars today know very little about the Pueblos. Satellite images recently revealed the complex network of highways they built, however. New breakthroughs in the future might reveal more about their civilisation — unless fracking damages the site, said drilling opponents.

“Modern oil-well technology endangers an ancient culture whose wisdom we still do not fully understand, just as climate change — exacerbated by methane leaks — may endanger our modern culture as well,” wrote Fort Lewis College History Professor Andy Gulliford in a recent essay on the area


Photo credit: Allison Hill, flickr/Creative Commons

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