Pandering to Corporations, Drilling Sacred Lands of the West 
Oil and gas drilling leases increase for sacred lands in the West 

by Brenda Norrell, Contributing Journalist
SENAA International
Published with author's permission

ALBUQUERQUE – Sacred lands of the West became further endangered as the Bush administration pressed for approval of a record number of new oil and gas drilling permits in the West, targeting unspoiled pristine wildernesses, including the Rocky Mountain region.

The Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog group, released a comprehensive report of oil and gas leases in the West, showing many American Indian sacred places have been targeted.

Other sites, never been reclaimed from mining, already have trails of uranium tailings, scarred lands, tainted waterways and foul air.

After taking office, the Bush administration developed a task force to facilitate industry requests and fast track requests for oil and gas drilling. Now, the Bureau of Land Management has increased drilling permits by 70 percent since the Clinton administration.

Bahe Katenay, Navajo from Big Mountain, Ariz., said oil and gas drilling is violating Navajos’ most sacred region, the Dine’ place of origin and place of the Creation legend, near present day Bloomfield, N.M.

“Gas reserves are drilled in places where White Shell Woman was found by Talking God and places where she did her Kinalda (puberty ceremony).

“Places where the Twin Warrior Gods made their divine deeds are also desecrated with drilling, piping, wells and recreation activities. The Dine’ have lost these lands and their ‘puppet’ tribal government have refused to fight for a claim to this area,” Katenay said.

Katenay point out that sacred land is being violated while many Navajos haul propane tanks in the backs of their trucks for fuel to cook with. “What would the Christians do if their Holy Lands were dotted with natural gas pumping stations and strands of pipelines crisscrossed everywhere?” Katenay asked.

“Then to make things worst, what if these gas reserves were illegally tapped with permission from a puppet government that is made up of their own people. Finally, how would they feel if these natural resources were being bought off cheap from their nation, exported away to another country and none made available for their use?

“To the Dine', this has happened when our Holy Lands were made available to gas companies in northwestern New Mexico in a region known to us as Dinetah.

“Today, several major gas pipelines are routed out towards southern California. Many Dine’ of course have to pay for the natural gas or propane from companies that desecrate their Holy Lands. Many Dine' household do not receive piping so they haul their propane bottles to the local markets to get them filled.”

Katenay said the place of Dine’ origin, Dinetah in northwestern New Mexico, still holds ancient archaeological sites and a large portion of the creation stories related to all geographical features of that area. Energy development threatens the Navajos’ Four Sacred Mountains, located in the region from Flagstaff, Ariz., southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, he said.

“I travel from Black Mesa to these areas when I can. I am disturbed every time I come back to my Holy Land. I see new drilling and new roads that scar the wooded mesas and buttes. I always wonder if the Spirits of our Creators are still alive there. Despite this, I still get a sense of healing when I look upon Gobernador Knob or Huerfano Mesa and its surrounding canyonlands.

“But I am also saddened when I think that, because these lands were given away for profit, the rest of our sacred lands everywhere are< being desecrated, today: Mount Taylor, San Francisco Mountains, and Big Mountain.”

Navajo President Joe Shirley, in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, urged the agency to halt oil and gas drilling in the Four Corners region near the Navajo place of origin.

"Because of their significance to Diné life, any desecration through oil and gas drilling on or near the two mountains will have a devastating effect on Navajo beliefs,” Shirley said.

The Environmental Working Group’s new report shows the federal government has offered 27.9 million acres of public and private land in New Mexico for oil and gas drilling. New Mexico ranks second among 12 western states for lands currently leased and second for the amount of land currently producing oil and gas.

San Juan County, the Dine’ place of origin, is among the top three counties targeted, along with Eddy and Lea counties, according to the new report.

Navajos living in nearby San Juan County in southeastern Utah have long< protested the saturation of oil and gas wells around their homes. Navajo Councilman Mark Maryboy of Aneth, Utah, and other Utah Navajos have long argued that the Navajo Nation returns little profit to Navajos living in desperate conditions in the Utah portion of tribal land.

Utah Navajo allegations of corruption within the U.S. Interior gained support from an Interior whistleblower in 2003. Kevin Gambrell, head of the Farmington, N.M., Indian Minerals Office since 1996, entered complaints for six years that Navajo landowners were not receiving fair compensation for the use of their land.

After receiving no response, he contacted Alan Balaran, an investigator appointed by the federal judge presiding in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, alleging billions in missing dollars for land use and minerals.

Balaran’s report said private landowners near the Navajo Nation were paid up to 20 times what Navajos were paid for leases.

Gambrell was fired after reporting that Navajos, many of whom do not speak English, were given blank leases to sign by oil and gas companies. These were leases to build pipelines across tribal land.Navajo leaders were told the companies would fill in the lease rates later. Gambrell said it resulted in the loss of millions of dollars for Navajos.

The Interior Department did not respond to the allegations of collusion with energy corporations and the federal lawsuit, Cobell. v. Norton, is ongoing.

Pristine land in the Four Corners region, however, is not the only land targeted for new oil and gas drilling. Energy companies are vying for oil and gas leases in the most pristine regions of the Rocky Mountains, where bears, wolves and elk attract travelers. In Wyoming, herds of pronghorn antelope are on the run from oil and gas development.

In Montana, oil and gas leases threaten Badger-Two Medicine, sacred ground of the Blackfeet. In Colorado, 1,000-year-old petroglyphs are threatened in Vermillion Basin. In Utah, oil and gas leases have been issued for Book Cliffs, Desolation Canyon and Fisher Towers, with ancient burial grounds.

Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin are also targeted. The 14 million acres are surrounded by the Bighorn Mountains in the West, the Black Hills in the east, Montana's Cedar Ridge in the north, and Wyoming's Laramie Mountains, Casper arch and Hartville Uplift in the South.

Since 1997, the Basin has also been the site of intensive coal bed methane production and has recently become the most active area in the country for gas development.

The Environmental Working Group points out campaign dollars play a role. Between 2000 and 2004, the oil and gas industry poured more than $75 million into political campaigns, with 79 percent going to Republicans.

“Despite access to more than 200 million acres of public land over the past 15 years (1989-2003), the oil and gas industry has produced enough energy from this land to satisfy only 53 days of U.S. oil consumption and 221 days of natural gas consumption,” according to EWG's analysis of well-by-well oil and gas production records obtained August 16 2004 via a Freedom of Information Act Request.

The report states that drilling on federal lands in the West has done nothing to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign energy. In fact, since 1982, the U.S. dependence on foreign oil has doubled and dependence on foreign natural gas has tripled. 


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.