Drilling the Sacred Butte
I first climbed the sacred butte at the edge of the Greater Aneth oil field in 1998. My husband, Doug, had been here before and knew where to find hand- and footholds in a break along the steep sides. He told me there were remains of about a dozen kivas on top, underground ceremonial structures built by Pueblo people. Usually entered through a hole in the roof, the interior accessed by ladder, these kivas had deteriorated over the centuries; all that was left, he said, were the hot tub-sized pits.
We clambered up and were greeted by a sight he had not expected: the kivas all were marked with stakes and flagging, a sign that contract archeologists had been through here, cataloging the site in advance of the oil and gas rigs. As the sun set, we removed everything we could, hauling the trash with us. Returning several times during the next ten years, we found it remained untouched, as though no one had been here since the original architects.
Nowhere else in the United States can one see how people lived on the land for thousands of years as in the sandstone desert wilderness of the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners region. In a few instances, these places are named and outfitted with tourist amenities. But for the most part, the ruins, pottery, shelters and rock art of early Americans simply lie out in the sun and wind.
Geologists call the heart of this country the Paradox Basin, and believe there’s oil and gas yet to be found here. More than 440 million barrels of oil have poured out of the Aneth field since its discovery at the south end of the Paradox in 1956. And the Lisbon field up north toward Moab has been quietly, steadily producing oil, about 55 million barrels since 1960. But advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has the petroleum industry taking another look at a lot of previously unpromising land, including this country here.
On the north end of the basin beyond Moab, Tom Chidsey of the Utah Geological Survey tells me, there’s potential for new discoveries. Further south, he’d like to see the old fields worked over with new techniques, including the use of carbon dioxide sequestration to pressurize older wells into higher, more efficient production. And all over the region, he says, significant amounts of oil and gas could be lying trapped in shale—the exact kind of situation that has the industry excited about producing natural gas from the Marcellus formation on the East Coast, and the Barnett shale in Texas.
“It’s actually going on in southwestern Colorado,” he says. “We’re just trying to see if we can get that kind of success on the Utah side.”
But from the lycra-clad mountain biking mecca of Moab to Navajo towns in the south, people aren’t sure they want that kind of success in their backyards. Especially in the reservation communities of Aneth and Montezuma Creek, where boom and bust look an awful lot alike.
The countryside of southeastern Utah is full of ruins like this Anasazi shelter, part of a larger village tucked away under a cliff. (Photo credit: ANDREA PEACOCK)
Clovis people were likely first on this continent, and occupied the grassy plateaus of the Four Corners region roughly 13,000 years ago. There’s some evidence that the weather was becoming dryer, warmer then, and about that time huge game animals went extinct leaving merely big game. In archeological digs, Clovis blades give way to Folsom points, which are replaced with the implements of Eden, Cody and Agate Basin people, the whole lot of them big game hunters referred to commonly as Paleo-Indians. Their distinctive arrow and spear points are still scattered all over the place: a person with a feel for the landscape can pick out a bench above the confluence of two creeks, and find evidence of a whole range of cultures.
Following Clovis and the rest of the paleo-Indians were more sedentary people: the Archaic traders, then agricultural Basketmakers, cliff-dwelling Anasazi and immigrant Athabascans. While the Anasazi remain as today’s Pueblo people, and Athabascans as Navajo (or Diné) and Apache tribes, their history lingers both in stories and on the land itself.
Navajo scholar Robert McPherson describes the link between stories and cultural identity as being inextricably connected to the physical landscape. “By tying supernatural events to geographical locations,” he writes, “the Diné imbue the land with sacred meaning and create a world of holiness.” Specific landmarks, animals and plants act as a “mnemonic device” recalling stories and lessons for living derived from them, ceremonies and appropriate behavior for interacting with them.
Archeologists presume that a shaman artist dating to the Basketmaker era or earlier created this panel of petroglyphs near Bluff, Utah. (Photo credit: ANDREA PEACOCK)
McPherson, a professor at the College of Eastern Utah in the nearby Mormon town of Blanding, says there are very few elder Navajos who still see the landscape in those terms. “When this generation of grandmothers and grandfathers are gone,” he tells me, “the old traditional way of looking at life is going to be gone… We’re talking about the tail-end of the traditional Navajo view.
“Younger people say, ‘Oh we hate the fumes, we hate the noise, we hate the trucks,’ whatever, all that kind of stuff. ‘The money ought to stay here,’ those kinds of things. For the older people, a lot of these places get ruined and the holy beings leave. They’re gone. For them, that’s a very powerful force to reckon with.”
Poverty and reservations endure an unhappy marriage all over America, but here it seems worse than usual: people feel abused by the Navajo Nation as well as the oil companies, and the juxtaposition of oil wealth where many people don’t have indoor plumbing, electricity or central heating makes the insult that much brighter.
“The oil and gas production has been a curse on the Utah Navajos,” says former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy. “It didn’t bring wealth to the people, they’re just as poor—probably the poorest people on the Navajo reservation. And yet the resource that comes out of here produces millions and millions of dollars.”
Maryboy was raised in a hogan near Bluff, south of the San Juan River. He was the first Native American county commissioner in Utah history, serving four terms on the San Juan County Commission (alongside the infamous Calvin Black, the model for writer Ed Abbey’s fictional greedy, randy Mormon antagonist, Bishop Love). He also sat on the Navajo Tribal Council, and was chair of the budget and finance committee.
Former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy works as a consultant to an engineering firm doing a water study on the Utah side of the Navajo reservation. "We found out that there’s a high level of arsenic, uranium, selenium, in most of the water in the Aneth-Red Mesa-Monument Valley area," he says, "way above the national level." (Photo courtesy of Mark Maryboy)
The Utah Navajos, Maryboy says, suffered physically, financially and culturally from their oil boom. “When the oil and gas came into the Four Corners area, Navajos expected jobs. I think that’s when a lot of people first experienced the extreme discrimination that the oil companies had. They brought in their own people, and they would not hire the local folks to do the work,” he says. “They did all of the work, they did all of the contracting. Basically they just took over the area. And Navajos became a second class citizen.”
The industrial development of their backyards, Maryboy says, added injury to insult, leaving the communities of Aneth and Montezuma Creek with bad water, poor air quality, ruined grazing lands and junk lying about everywhere. According to census data extracted by the Navajo Division of Economic Development, 52 percent of people in the Aneth Chapter (a division of tribal government that functions much like a county or town) live in poverty, with nearly a third of households lacking indoor plumbing.
In 1956, Time magazine crowed about the “lucky Indians” of Aneth in an article detailing the first big lease auction here. The Texas Company—now Texaco—had struck a gusher, and 23 companies paid $27.5 million for a piece of the action. The article articulated the hopes of locals then, saying money from the leases would “double the tribal income this year, provide money for new reservation roads, schools and irrigation projects. Said a Navajo brave: ‘Let the white man have the oil. My people want irrigated lands. We now know how we can get them.’”
Nowadays, the smell of petroleum permeates Aneth, with grasshopper pumps and discarded equipment sprinkled across the landscape as far as the eye can see. Local Navajo say their grazing lands have been rendered sterile, their water and air polluted. According to Environmental Protection Agency records, Mobil Oil, Exxon-Mobil and Texaco have had to pay a combined $8.5 million during the last decade for violations ranging from dozens of spills that reached the tributaries of the San Juan River (the region’s lifeblood, and a river which figures prominently in Navajo culture), to Clean Air Act violations, including Mobil’s spewing of 71 tons of sulphur dioxide annually into the air from their McElmo Creek facility when their permit limited them to 1.25 tons per year.
The leases changed hands many times over the decades, with Superior, Shell, Continental, Chevron and Resolute (along with countless small operators) all taking a turn. The Navajo Nation itself got in the business in 2003, setting up the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas corporation, and buying shares in half a dozen units within the Aneth field, now clearly in decline.
Aneth area Navajos have protested repeatedly: they set up a 20-foot teepee in Mobile’s parking lot after a 1997 pumping station explosion; they formed a human barricade blocking access to McKracken Mesa in 1993; and in 1978, locals were able to shut down production throughout the region when they occupied a Texaco pumping station for nearly three weeks. Despite agreements reached each time, conditions in Aneth remain dismal.
Maryboy blames the Navajo Nation on two counts. First, he says, the tribal government in Window Rock, Arizona, doesn’t make an adequate effort to inform people in the Aneth area about its decisions. The drilling rigs, he says, basically just showed up. It was partly a language problem—at the time, few people spoke English. But Maryboy says the Nation often treats Utah Navajos as an afterthought because they live so far away—especially those north of the San Juan River, which according to tribal lore, was supposed to be the Navajo boundary.
“The Utah Navajos have always been a stepchild to the Navajo Nation from day one,” Maryboy says. “In the beginning of the Navajo Nation government, the Navajo Nation rejected the Utah Navajos saying that ‘They’re not Navajos, they’re too far north, they must Ute or something.’ It wasn’t until the oil, the great quantity of oil was discovered in Utah that they said ‘Yeah, they’re our people.’”
To make matters worse, the Utah Navajos never got their fair share of the profits.
By law, the Utah Navajos were to receive 37-1/2 percent of the royalties, with the rest going to the Navajo Nation. But the Aneth-area Navajos never had control of that money—it was placed in a trust fund, managed nominally by the state but mostly funneled through a private, nonprofit called the Utah Navajo Development Council formed specifically to provide services to Navajos in San Juan County. A 1991 audit by the State of Utah pronounced the trust fund mismanaged, the money wasted and lacking oversight “to the point that effective policy direction and accountability have not existed.”
While tens of millions were paid into the trust fund ($61 million as of the 1991 audit), the people of Aneth and Montezuma Creek live in poverty: one in five homes lacks complete kitchen facilities and nearly two-thirds are without telephone lines. When the nonprofit organization Diné Care attempted to bring Internet service to one of its organizers in Aneth, founder and treasurer Lori Goodman tells me, they found the phone lines there weren’t even good enough to carry a signal.
Chinle Wash flows into the San Juan River at the northern boundary of the Navajo reservation. This aerial photo shows uplifts, folds and faults characteristic of the region, most likely associated with the tectonic event that formed nearby Comb Ridge. (Photo credit: Gene Foushee)
“We don’t have economists, so it’s just like any other third world country,” Goodman says, explaining that Aneth’s problems are repeated all over the reservation. “You have a culture that’s trusting … we don’t have people who are business-minded. And so they believe it when people say the tribe’s going to make money.
“The Navajo nation is one of the ten richest in land, in resources, in the country. But we’re also one of the ten poorest, where over 50 percent of the people are unemployed. But yet we have five coal-fired power plants, and 30 percent of the people don’t have electricity or running water.”
Utah Navajos won a victory of sorts last summer when the state settled an 18-year-long lawsuit by agreeing to pay the trust fund $33 million, though the fund’s management is still up for grabs. On the one hand, Maryboy says he’d like to see the money come back to Aneth for things like education and economic development, essentially turning the reservation communities into self-sufficient tourist towns. On the other hand, he adds, money is really the problem.
“In Navajo, you just don’t want no drilling, no nothing. Just keep the land as is. But with the Anglo environmentalists, somebody like you, there’s always a dollar sign and there’s always leeway for gas production.”
This work is supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation (Washington, DC), founded in 1965 to promote independent journalism.