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After a century, oil and gas problems persist on Navajo lands

Joseph Hernandez pulls weeds away from warning signs at an unmarked tank farm in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation.
Joseph Hernandez pulls weeds away from warning signs at an unmarked tank farm in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation.

It’s a Saturday morning in late June and Garry Jay, a member of the Navajo Nation, pilots a white crew-cab Chevy pickup on a lumpy dirt road across the grasslands north of his house in Shiprock, New Mexico, heading for the round, wood-framed hogan his grandfather built by hand in the 1970s.

His route weaves 20 miles among the hundreds of oil wells that dot Horseshoe Canyon as he chases the bittersweet memories of childhood weekends and summers 40 years ago in that house, on that land, with his grandparents. The family’s former winter sheep ranch sits at the base of a sharp cliff, five miles south of the Colorado border. It’s the last spot in the canyon with a clear view of sacred Shiprock Peak. To Diné people (as the Navajo call themselves) it is Tsé Bit’a’í (Rock with Wings) and the center of several Navajo ceremonies.

Jay says, “This is home.”

The hogan has sat empty for years, and the roof has collapsed, but Jay keeps up his grazing permit — keeps up his hope — so he can someday return, fix up the place and raise sheep again as his grandparents did. He visits when he can because being out here is “kind of like a therapy session,” he says.

The hogan built by Garry Jay’s grandfather in the 1970s. It sits at the opening of Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation.

These days, on his visits home, while looking for memories of the past, he also looks for leaking oil wells. A few years ago, the wells near the hogan changed owners from one in Colorado to one in Texas, and Jay says with that came a reduction in maintenance. “They’re neglecting it as far as I’m concerned,” he says. When he finds leaks, Jay says he reports them to Navajo environmental agencies, but even when the spills are obvious and undeniable, cleanup has been slow and erratic.

It’s an old story. This October marks the 100th anniversary of the first oil leases on the Navajo Nation. In that time, outsiders have shown up looking for uranium, coal, oil and other minerals, taking resources and money while leaving contamination and poverty behind.

Today, the wells surrounding Jay’s old home are but one sign of the lingering tensions between commercial mineral extraction and the health and well-being of the Navajo. Twenty-five miles to the south, a proposed pipeline would carry hydrogen made from natural gas tapped in the region. Seventy miles to the south and east, new gas and oil development around Chaco Culture National Park pits Navajo against Navajo. And everywhere on the Navajo Nation, people tell stories of health problems linked to work in extractive industries.

The overriding question is: Do the benefits of extraction outweigh the costs to health and to Native culture? Jay now works for a company monitoring heavy metal contamination caused by uranium and vanadium processing in the 1950s and 1960s that ruined the water table beneath the town of Shiprock. And, despite a century of near-constant commercial mineral development, the Navajo Nation still has some of the nation’s highest rates of homes without basic utilities.

While Jay’s memories of life in the family hogan are rich and happy, they don’t include running water or electricity — because there wasn’t any. But there was an electric line at the bottom of the hill, powering a pumpjack that bobbed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, pumping oil and making money for someone else, somewhere else.

“I would always hear it every day, no matter what,” says Jay. And, despite the danger, “Me and my brother, we used to walk over, we used to climb it and we used to ride it” as it bobbed up and down.

The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division has records of nearly 300 wells within four miles of Jay’s old home, including the one Jay rode with his brother. It still pumps — slowly — and that makes it special. Many of those wells were drilled in the 1950s during the region’s second big oil boom, and most are now plugged — but not all.

Shiprock Peak pokes up in the distance beyond Horseshoe Canyon, where power poles dot the plain. The poles were installed to power oil wells.

*   *   *
That hot morning in June, Jay takes Joseph Hernandez (Diné), a local rights organizer, to visit a well on the other side of the wash that runs near his grandparents’ old home.

In 2016, Lan Ma’s Oil & Gas LLC — registered to Shuying David Lan with a business address pegged to a six-bed, six-bath mansion on a golf course in Sugar Land, Texas — bought this oil well and 69 others, most in the Horseshoe field and a few in a field farther north. Between January and the last week of July, 22 of those wells had produced about 4,700 barrels of oil, with a gross value somewhere in the neighborhood of $330,000.

A few of the Lan Ma wells, though listed as active, haven’t produced anything since 2022. The rest of the 39 “active” wells haven’t been active in years. But that hasn’t stopped them from leaking.

This spring, a Lan Ma well near Jay’s grandparents’ old home — now just a pipe jutting from the ground — burped up a flood of black crude. The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division’s well database shows its last recorded production was three barrels of oil in 2010. Jay has a photo on his phone of the black smear running across a dirt road and into the nearby wash. Today, the site is scraped clean.

Jay says that after he reported the spill to the Navajo Nation EPA, people came and cleaned it up. Piles of dirt at the bottom of the wash appear to have been shoved in, and a pair of once-buried oil gathering lines dangle, broken, from the wash walls.

Garry Jay walks along the edge of a deep wash where he found an oil spill at a well operated by Lan Ma Oil & Gas earlier this year. Cleanup crews appear to have shoved dirt into the wash where broken buried oil gathering lines now dangle.

Next, Jay and Hernandez stop at a nearby tank farm that separates oil from the contaminated saline water that comes out of the surrounding wells. It is not clear who is responsible for the site, which sits amid Lan Ma wells. There is no sign saying who currently owns or operates the two tanks and separator; there are, however, warnings written in both the Navajo language and English about poison gas.

Joseph takes photos of thick, black puddles inside the safety berm surrounding the tank marked “Produced Water.” Stains cover the bigger oil collection tank from an apparent overflow sometime in the past, and its containment berm, meant to capture any leaks, has crumbled. Satellite images of the two tanks from April 2019 appear to show a large spill covering a quarter-acre and running down the access road and into the nearby wash. A hundred yards up the road, black liquid runs into the wash from a pipe, while a fan-shaped stain runs from a well and into the wash as well.

The last stop that day is that well with the fan-shaped stain in the satellite photo, known officially as “Navajo Tribe of Indians G #209” and operated by Lan Ma’s Oil & Gas. It is running, and sticky tar from an old spill darkens the earth all around. But that’s not all: A hissing sound leads Hernandez to a pipe jutting from the wellhead. “Oh, wow,” he says. Gas is venting straight into the air, forcefully enough to push one’s hand back. Jay stays away as Hernandez records a video of what he’s seeing.

Joseph Hernandez photographs oily sludge leaking from a produced water holding tank at an unmarked tank farm in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation.
Joseph Hernandez photographs oily sludge leaking from a produced water holding tank at an unmarked tank farm in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation.

“You can see the leak of crude oil right there. Lots of crude oil,” Hernandez says. “And if you get closer, you can actually hear the venting. It’s straight venting. This is all methane that is going up in the air.” He holds a string in front of the pipe and records it fluttering for the video.

Reached by phone a few weeks later, Shuying David Lan acknowledges that he is the owner of Lan Ma’s Oil & Gas but says: “I’ve never been there. So don’t ask me [about operations] because I have no idea.” When asked about the apparently leaking wells, he says, “If it belongs to me, we’ll fix it.” Lan said his employees are at the site every day. “They’re patrolling.” And he insists that the majority of his wells that haven’t produced anything in years are not abandoned: “We’re gonna bring them online.” He then says he is going to contact his workers in New Mexico and hangs up.

That day in June, Jay regularly scans the horizon for oil company workers on the roads or nearby well pads but doesn’t see any. He says that when he drives through to look at wells, oil workers often ask him who he is and follow him around, though he has every right to be there. Plus, he has known these wells a lot longer than they have — “Navajo Tribe of Indians G #209” is the same well he rode with his brother 40 years ago.

*   *   *

A collection of tribal, state and federal agencies handle different aspects of well regulation on the Nation, including the Navajo Nation EPA, the Navajo Nation Water Quality Program, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division.

Allison Sandoval, a spokesperson for the BLM, says that the Navajo Nation EPA has primary jurisdiction for facilities and enforcement on the Nation. But operators are also required to report “undesirable events” to BLM when spills exceed certain amounts and/or are within sensitive environmental areas. The spills that Jay and Hernandez saw would seem to meet those guidelines — all are next to or in waterways — but Sandoval says that the agency has no records of spills at those locations and no record at all of the tank farm. Emails to the Navajo Nation EPA about the spills went unanswered.

Stephen Austin, senior hydrologist with the Navajo Water Quality Program, is the only water inspector working on these issues on the Navajo Nation. After being asked by Capital & Main about the venting and spills Jay and Hernandez found, Austin said he went to the area and saw various spots around the Lan Ma wells that had leaked into washes and required further cleanup. “If it goes into a wash,” he says, “it’s an illegal discharge under the Navajo Clean Water Act.”

As the lone inspector, Austin says, “It’s way beyond my ability to go out and just randomly check people.” He says he and other agencies worked for years to get rid of the previous operator. “I think [Lan Ma] is better,” he says, “but that’s not saying a whole lot.” Austin says he will contact Lan Ma and have its workers address the spills he saw.

Garry Jay walks past an oil well operated by Lan Ma Oil & Gas LLC in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. The well was leaking gas and was surrounded by the gummy remains of an earlier spill.
Garry Jay walks past an oil well operated by Lan Ma Oil & Gas LLC in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. The well was leaking gas and was surrounded by the gummy remains of an earlier spill.

Garry Jay walks past the oil well “Navajo Tribe of Indians G #209” in Horseshoe Canyon on the Navajo Nation. The gummy remains of an earlier spill surround it. As kids, he and his brother rode the bobbing well.

Back at the hissing well, a pair of back-to-back valves on the venting pipe look to be closed but the gas still pours out — sometimes smelling of rotten eggs and gas, but other times its odor is covered by the scent of oil rising from the polluted ground.

Methane — the main component of natural gas — causes more than 80 times the global warming of CO2 in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Earlier this year, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 60% over the next 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F). The International Energy Association has said that ending all oilfield leaks like this one is among the quickest, most cost-effective steps among many that must be taken to achieve that goal.

“We do not know how long it’s been venting like this,” Hernandez says in his video. The leaking well is powered by electricity from the Navajo Nation Power Authority grid, and he notes wryly that the well is thereby powered in part by renewable, nonpolluting solar energy.

“This should not be happening,” Hernandez says.

*   *   *

Sunset is falling as Hernandez pilots his car down the dirt roads where he and much of his family live. He grew up in To’Koi, New Mexico, between the town of Shiprock and its massive namesake mountain to the southwest. The village marks the literal crossroads of future Navajo energy development with that of a century ago. Pipeline Road runs east-west through the village, following the trajectory of a buried natural gas line. It is now the possible route of a future pipeline that will likely be filled with hydrogen made from natural gas. Indian Service Route 57A runs north-south past the village to Rattlesnake Field, one of the first commercial oil fields on the reservation, tapped a hundred years ago. This spot is also a crossroads of money and heartache for generations that worked for companies that exploited Navajo mineral rights.

“Every single one of my family members has suffered from energy extraction,” Hernandez says.

He tells of a grandfather who was a uranium miner and died from exposure to the mineral. “When I was a child, all I remember of him is suffering,” he says.

To’koi, New Mexico, with Shiprock Peak in the background.
To’koi, New Mexico, with Shiprock Peak in the background.

For more than a century, big-name outsiders like ARCO, BHP Billiton, Peabody and General Electric worked Navajo land for its wealth. Uranium, coal, oil and gas all flowed off the reservation, yet poverty and unemployment rates remain stubbornly high.

In 2021, Jason John, the director of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, testified that 30%-40% of homes in the Nation didn’t have access to water. About a quarter of homes don’t have an electrical connection. Those numbers are better than they used to be, but for many people whose driveways sit atop a natural gas line or worked for energy projects all their lives, more energy development has yet to provide lights or water.

Today, Hernandez notes the homes on the streets of his village by their connections: aunts and uncles, water and electricity. Some have one, some have both, some have none. A 2022 study published by Saint Louis University Journal of Health Law & Policy connected a lack of running water to increased mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on the Navajo Nation.

Hernandez’s mother died of COVID-19 in a home without running water — the home where he grew up. “I feel like if she had running water, at least she could have washed off,” he says. He had COVID-19 himself. The Nation as a whole was one of the hardest-hit populations in the country.

His aunt Virginia Washburn, a well-known rug weaver, had COVID-19 twice. She has a house with water and electricity connections, but every winter she goes to a local mine to get a load of coal for heating. She lives right on Pipeline Road and says, “Sometimes that gas line will smell.” And at the start of 2023 — around the time that Tallgrass Energy began talking of building a hydrogen pipeline through the Navajo Nation — someone came by and stuck yellow fiberglass poles along the road, marking the buried natural gas line.

Another aunt, Rosalie Speck, lives on the other side of the road in a single-wide mobile home. Her water connection is a garden hose running from a pipe in the yard and in through a vent on the side of the house. Electricity comes from an electrical outlet on a post in the yard, through a yellow extension cord, through a vent and into an interior outlet. Propane burners heat her food and her home, but she doesn’t have hot water. “I have to go to my daughter’s to take a shower,” she says. “That’s how we live around here.” But Speck can sit on her front porch and look at Pipeline Road and its new yellow markers for a pipeline that doesn’t carry natural gas to her house, 20 feet away.

The two women and another sister — Hernandez’s mother — worked for the nearby San Juan Generating Station when they were younger (it has since closed), and Speck worked at another coal-fired power plant in Colorado as well. She cleaned coal dust out of buildings for years, and now she has black lung disease and breathes oxygen through a tube into her nose. She moves slowly, her range circumscribed by the breathing tube, and she says the sickness leaves her brain a bit foggy. But when told that a company wants to build another pipeline on her road, she says, “We have to fight.”

Rosalie Speck sits on the porch of her home along Pipeline Road, which marks the path of a buried natural gas pipeline through the village of To’koi, New Mexico.
Rosalie Speck sits on the porch of her home along Pipeline Road, which marks the path of a buried natural gas pipeline through the village of To’koi, New Mexico.

Both Speck and Washburn say that people — they don’t remember who — came through a few years earlier and talked of building a pipeline along this route. Speck says one of them told her they would build a new home for her family if the pipeline went in. “We need a bigger house,” she says. “Do you think they lied?”

Energy development is contentious on the Nation. Tribal members who want to expand oil and gas production around Chaco Culture National Park blocked access roads in June to protest a 20-year drilling moratorium on new wells within a 10-mile buffer around the park, recently implemented by the Department of Interior.

“When companies come in they make a lot of promises and then — nothing,” Hernandez says. That’s not entirely true. Between 1887 and 1934, the federal government gave the heads of some Navajo families plots of land on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation. Those allotments remain today, shared by the descendants of those initial allottees, and still held in trust by the U.S. government.

Allottees with oil reserves on their land are promised, and get, monthly royalty checks paid by the Department of Interior for oil pulled up on that land. At a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in July, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said that allottees receive, on average, $20,000 a year. But Hernandez says that there are more than 100 people sharing his family’s 100-acre allotment with oil wells on it north of Chaco.

Speck goes into her home and comes out with a piece of paper showing what that looks like: her latest royalties check, for $7.05. “Sometimes, if we’re lucky,” she chuckles, “we get $9.”

*   *   *

The Diné people, as Navajo call themselves, call their traditional homeland Dinétah. To them the land has always been sacred, with spectacular Shiprock mountain a clear marker of the transcendent. But history has often been brutal. From 1863-66 the U.S. Army forcibly relocated all Diné people to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a “lonely, inhospitable outpost along the Pecos River,” 370 miles away. Almost a quarter of them died of exposure and starvation before a treaty was signed that allowed those who survived to return to the current-day Navajo Nation in 1868.

The first fights between the Nation and outsiders who wanted to develop coal, oil and other mineral deposits on Native land began soon after.

The elders of Navajo family clans traditionally held and exerted power on the nation, and for years they managed to keep large developments — particularly oil developments — at bay. According to Kathleen P. Chamberlain in her book Under Sacred Ground: A History of Navajo Oil, younger tribal members wanted the money development could bring, and in 1921 the U.S. government worked with some of them to create a new, elected Navajo Nation Council. In 1923 that new council agreed to the first oil leases on the Navajo Nation.

Chamberlain writes that following an unsuccessful oil lease auction on the morning of Oct. 15, 1923, Neill B. Field, a former mayor of Albuquerque, and S.C. Muñoz, a Chilean tycoon by way of New Jersey, went to lunch with Herbert Hagerman, the relatively new federal commissioner of the Navajo Nation, who ran the auction. Hagerman was also the former territorial governor of New Mexico. He was appointed by Albert B. Fall, secretary of the interior and former New Mexico senator, who, in four years’ time, would go to prison for accepting bribes for no-bid oil drilling leases on federal lands — the Teapot Dome scandal.

After lunch, Hagerman sold the Navajo Nation’s first two oil leases to Field and Muñoz, for $1,000 each, a surprisingly low sum even then. Three years later, Muñoz sold his interest in the Rattlesnake Field at the base of Shiprock Mountain for more than $1 million, making him New Mexico’s first oil millionaire. Oil and gas production and conflicts have continued ever since.

On July 13 of this year, Nygren, the Navajo Nation’s youngest-ever president at 36, addressed the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources. He spoke in favor of a bill that would remove the BLM’s 10-mile drilling ban around Chaco. If you watch closely, you can see Hernandez in a blue suit and bolo tie sitting behind Nygren’s left shoulder in the video.

Nygren testified that the Navajo Nation Council was unified against the 10-mile buffer. His argument was twofold: The BLM didn’t properly consult with the tribe about the buffer, and the oil money — any money — is needed to live on the reservation, where the median annual income is $27,000. He said the money the Navajo government would get is “very minimal,” but some people could receive significant royalty checks. “And those people’s livelihood should have been considered because living in poverty is not fun,” he said.

“Having grown up with very little, I seek to maximize economic opportunities and be a voice for our most vulnerable,” he said. “The withdrawal elevates outside special interest groups,” he said, and “disregards the sovereign interests of the Navajo Nation.” And those who could have profited from drilling around Chaco “felt like they were hit with a trash can,” he said.

*   *   *

Joseph Hernandez stands at the intersection of Pipeline Road and Indian Service Route 57A (here called Roads 9093 and 9090) in To’koi, New Mexico. Pipeline Road marks a natural gas pipeline through the village while the other road leads to Shiprock Peak and the first connercial oilfield on the Nation, started 100 years ago.
Joseph Hernandez stands at the intersection of Pipeline Road and Indian Service Route 57A (here called Roads 9093 and 9090) in To’koi, New Mexico. Pipeline Road marks a natural gas pipeline through the village while the other road leads to Shiprock Peak and the first connercial oilfield on the Nation, started 100 years ago.

Back at To’Koi, Hernandez stands in the dark next to the mobile home where he grew up. There is no running water or connection to the electric grid. It is next to the proposed route of the hydrogen pipeline, which would go right between the homes of his aunties. Through the dark, you can make out the shape of small houses, some brightly lit from the electric grid, some with flickering lights powered by generators. He says people will run extension cords from house to house to get power.

“They’re enduring,” Hernandez says of his aunties. He and they have worked hard and watched people around them suffer. But they refuse to despair for the future of the Navajo Nation. “There’s hope in us to make a better future,” he says.

“Our president [Nygren] says he wants to fight poverty. We do, too,” Hernandez says.

But he insists that oil and gas development isn’t the way. “Why are they putting all that money into a [hydrogen] pipeline when we can’t even get a water line? A power line?”

Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions, as well as at home in the US. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.