There used to be big talk about a big boom coming to the San Juan Basin. Industry thought they’d sink 20,000 new oil wells. Companies wanted to take advantage of oil deposits squeezed into tiny fissures in tight shale deep underground.
That was a few years ago.
Today, the estimate is for fewer than 2000 new oil wells.
About 100 wells have already been drilled, and the federal government’s given a green light to about 150 more.
That’s not even close to what industry predicted, but critics say the new development’s still a big deal. “It has a dramatic impact on the landscape,” says Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, “and it has a really dramatic impact on the people that live there, and where this development is taking place in their backyards—sometimes literally.”
Tisdel represents conservation and Indigenous groups who say the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hasn’t studied the new technologies being used on the oil shale wells. These new technologies include multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling. That is, drilling underground in different directions from one well, rather than drilling straight down, like with conventional wells.
The groups are also challenging the BLM’s practice of approving one well at a time, rather than considering the cumulative effect even a couple hundred new wells could have on the landscape and nearby communities.
"There seems to be right now a disconnect at the Obama administration in terms of their decision-making on climate change,” says Tisdel. “They're doing a lot of good things on a broader scale, the clean power plan rule, for example. But there's a disconnect with how our local public lands are being developed for fossil fuels.”
The BLM is amending what’s called a “resource management plan” for the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. The current plan is more than a decade old; it was created before all this interest in the basin’s shale oil.
“We start talking about, ‘Well, what do we want to do differently? What do we want to keep in place? What do we want to change?'” says Peggy Deaton, a project manager in the BLM’s Farmington Field Office. “We come up with different alternatives for how we're going to start managing some of these different planning issues.”
But the BLM isn’t the only federal agency overseeing development in the San Juan Basin right now.
The Federal Indian Minerals Office – or FIMO – also leases lands. Specifically, it approves leases on Navajo allotments. Those are private lands granted to some Navajo families back in the 19th century.
“They’re supposed to be out here, educating the people, letting them know what's coming about and, you know, talking to the public,” says allottee Etta Arviso, who adds that FIMO hasn’t helped people understand what’s happening with the new development.
She says that when a company comes in, the agency is supposed to know what the effects might be on allottees and their lands. “They are supposed to look after the community people, which right now, with what we’re finding out … that was never done.”
No one from FIMO, in New Mexico or Washington D.C., would comment for this story.
But the BLM’s Farmington District Manager, Victoria Barr, points out that once a lease has been issued, there’s really no going back. “If we lease something, for example, and the process has played itself out and the leases have been granted, and then a year later, we say, ‘Oh no, you can't access that mineral,’ that's actually a taking under the United States Constitution.”
That’s because the lessee has the right to whatever is beneath the ground—a constitutional right to extract that resource and sell it.
Speaking for the BLM, Barr says it follows federal laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act, when leasing lands and planning. “As the district manager, I want to make sure I leave behind a positive land management legacy,” she says. “I want to be able to look back and say, ‘The decisions that I made, the people that I supported—who were very passionate about the mission of the agency, of multiple use and sustained yield for present and future generations—we’re doing our due diligence.’”
Barr says there’s an opportunity to do that in the San Juan Basin.
Within the next few months, the BLM will issue its draft resource management plan – laying out options for how it might plan for the new shale oil development.
And that’s the perfect time, for members of the public to let the agency know what they think.
Funding for KUNM’s new series Drilling Deep comes from the New Venture Fund.