The Piñon Pipeline, touted as the Southwest’s version of the Dakota Access Pipeline, has perished, even before the real battle over it began. In mid-December the project’s proponents formally withdrew their right of way application, which was being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Saddle Butte San Juan LLC first proposed Piñon at the height of the oil boom, in 2014. About 50 miles of gathering lines would have taken crude oil from wells in the San Juan Basin’s Gallup Sandstone play to the 100-mile main line near Lybrook, New Mexico. From there, the pipeline would have carried as much as 50,000 barrels of oil per day south — crossing Navajo tribal, federal and state lands along on the way — to a rail terminal between Grants and Gallup, New Mexico.
Opponents were concerned not only about how yet another pipeline and potential leaks from it would affect a 100-mile-long swath of land, but also that it would facilitate the fracking frenzy then underway in and around Navajo communities and the Greater Chacoan Cultural Landscape that surrounds Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
With some 40,000 wells, the 10,000-square-mile San Juan Basin has produced more natural gas than just about anywhere else. After a nation-wide glut crashed prices and ended the natural gas boom in 2008, however, the Basin’s producers turned almost exclusively to oil, which was still enjoying record high prices at the time.
WPX Energy and Encana led the charge, and the BLM Farmington Field Office issued dozens of permits under a 2003 Resource Management Plan, which had cleared the way for 10,000 new wells in the Basin (4,000 had already been drilled under the plan). Yet that plan had been formulated back before the “shale revolution,” when mostly conventional means were used to drill for natural gas. The oil play, on the other hand, is located to the south of the gas patch, closer to Chaco and to the predominantly Navajo communities of Lybrook, Nageezi and Counselors. It requires deeper, more extensive drilling, bigger well pads and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing.
A coalition of regional environmental groups, archaeologists and concerned citizens from both white and Native American communities rose up to stop the BLM from issuing permits or leasing land until it reworked the management plan to take shale drilling into account.
Drillers weren’t fazed.
Wells were put in near the Great North Road, a 30-mile long, 30-foot wide architectural feature constructed by the Ancestral Puebloans more than 1,000 years ago. Bulldozers scraped well pads into the badlands immortalized by Georgia O’Keefe in her “Black Place” paintings. And the companies erected huge drill rigs, bulldozed roads and installed sundry infrastructure near homes and even a school in the tiny, loose-knit Navajo communities. In July 2016 three dozen storage tanks near Nageezi caught fire and filled the high desert air with thick, black smoke, as if demonstrating what could go wrong.
Since oil pipeline capacity leading out of the Basin is limited, most of the newfound petroleum is trucked from the wells, down dusty dirt roads to the already notoriously dangerous Highway 550, where it continues by truck to larger storage areas, rail tankers or refineries. Thus the proposed Piñon Pipeline would have made moving the oil cheaper and, proponents argued, safer. Soon, the battle was being waged on two fronts: Over the pipeline, and over drilling.
The global oil price crash that began late in 2014 brought drilling to a halt. For the last year or so no more than three drill rigs have operated at one time in the entire San Juan Basin, and recently the rig count dropped to an unprecedented zero.
Rather than lull the opposition into complacency, the slowdown — and the success of the Standing Rock Sioux people in their fight against Dakota Access — emboldened them. This summer they scored a victory when the BLM announced it would delay an auction for oil and gas leases near Chaco. The pro-industry Western Energy Alliance shot back with a lawsuit of its own, but it’s gone nowhere so far. Instead, the BLM announced in October that it would slow down the Resource Management Plan amendment process to expand consultation with the relevant tribes, another victory for the opposition.
This fall, as the Standing Rock situation built toward its climax, news outlets and advocacy groups positioned the Piñon Pipeline fight as the next Dakota Access-type battle, pitting tribes and activists against corporations and federal agencies. There are indeed parallels. Yet while the Chaco-area opposition is every bit as impassioned as their northern counterparts and fighting for an equally worthy cause, the situation in New Mexico is a bit murkier.
At Standing Rock, Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II has led the opposition, his tribe united behind him. While many members of the San Juan Basin resistance are Navajos, the Navajo Nation’s government has largely been quiet regarding both pipeline and drilling — they derive a substantial portion of their budget from oil royalties — making tribal sovereignty less of an issue. At Standing Rock the resistance has a clear focal point at a specific place, stopping the pipeline from crossing the river. The Chaco-area coalition is dealing with development spread out over hundreds of square miles. And while the New Mexico coalition is united in its effort to protect the land and people of the San Juan Basin, it is divided into a keep-it-in-the-ground camp and a more compromise-minded one. The latter is focused primarily on getting a 10-mile no-drill zone around Chaco Culture NHP to protect archaeological resources and landscapes sacred to today’s Pueblo people.
The opposition can claim Piñon Pipeline’s demise as a solid victory even though it was low oil prices, not the thousands of opposing comments, that killed it. But if oil prices rebound and creep back into the $80-per-barrel or higher range, drilling will return. And it will do so with or without a pipeline.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is currently writing a book about the Gold King Mine spill. Follow @jonnypeace