Natural Gas Drilling: Chaco Canyon

By Mike Merino

The Chaco Culture Historical Park was the focus of the Celebrate Chaco Art Show at the Cibola Arts Council/Double Six Gallery and is home to one of the most celebrated cultures of puebloan life in New Mexico. Thousands of visitors descend on the Chaco Canyon living museum and the ruins were designated a World Heritage Site. Displays, dioramas and artifacts on display continue to attract interest in a culture that was crucial to the formative era of ancient peoples.

But, the area has also attracted interest in drilling operations for natural gas wells that many feel would be an unwanted intrusion on this delicate landscape.

The initial plans by Cimarex Energy to drill two natural gas wells on state land within the Chaco Culture National Historical Park have been put on hold by the company. The site selected was state land within two miles of the cultural site ‘s visitor center and just one mile from an area known as the “sun dagger” site at Fajada Butte, where light and shadow tracks the cycles of the moon and sun .

Cimarex Energy issued a statement to postpone the proposed project indefinitely because of multiple concerns that have been raised by groups of environmentalists and preservationists over the potential for harm the drilling could do to what many regard as the region’s ultimate ancestral puebloan site. Cimarex regional land manager, Mike Wolfe, agrees.

“We feel our resources are presently better spent in areas that minimize concerns regarding that area of Chaco Cultural National Historic Park,” he said. The State Land Office originally considered the drilling leases for two state land parcels, located on Sections 32 and 36 for the simple reason that proceeds derived from the energy and mineral leases on those two parcels of state lands are designed to fund public education.

Chaco is an important pueblo center that tells us about the past according to Russ Bodnar of the National Park Service at the Chaco Culture Historical Park.

“Chaco became a World Heritage Site on December 8, 1987. We were nominated by the National Park Service under Criteria 3 which says that you have to provide testimony to a civilization that has disappeared. We are working on having that changed and upgraded because obviously the pueblo folks definitely say they haven‘t disappeared and all the pueblos attest to that fact,” he said.

Oil and gas exploration is a double edged sword when it comes to the pros and cons of that practice. The state Historic Preservation Office of New Mexico feels that stepped up gas and oil exploration in areas like southeastern New Mexico presents an opportunity to develop cultural surveys focused on industry development of cultures, and the resulting settlements, towns and cities that were built to support it.

The initial consultations about the Chaco drilling venture involved the SLO, Cimarex, the National Park Service and the Historic Preservation Department of the state of New Mexico. The Chaco site is considered a World Heritage Site and the Preservation Department is continuing to work with the New Mexico Congressional Delegation and the SLO to develop a zone that will protect resources within and outside of the park boundaries and the World Heritage Site.