Fracking Georgia O'Keeffe Country

Drill rigs pop up near Navajo communities, Chaco Canyon and the iconic Black Place.

 

"Ah," I think, as I tear along the highway in my little, old, muffler-challenged car, "that’s what she meant." I continue past the undulating, almost erotic landscape, the color of charcoal and ash, and pull over next to the highway atop the next rise, right about where she would have first spied the hills through the windshield of her Model A Ford. Of that view, she wrote: “… as you come to it over a hill, it looks like a mile of elephants—grey hills all about the same size with almost white sand at their feet.”

niceone-jpg
Badlands near Georgia O'Keeffe's Black Place in northwestern New Mexico
Jonathan Thompson

“She” is Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the greatest American artists of all time, and this is the Black Place, which O’Keeffe visited and painted on dozens of occasions. As such, it may be the most famous and little known stretch of badlands anywhere. Though thousands of people pass by every day on the highway, very few slow down to actually look at or see the remarkable piece of landscape. Even O’Keeffe fans probably miss it, as many believe that the Black Place is in the Bisti Badlands, which lie north and west of here, and are protected as a wilderness area.

On a hot and surprisingly humid August day, in a short window between monsoon-driven storms, I climb out of the car and walk into the dunes, their crackled surfaces oozing warmth and, here and there, a shock of green topped with tiny yellow or red flowers. The landscape is surreal. Massive stones perch on impossibly tiny pillars of dirt, and geologic time here seems transparent — an empty Tokay bottle sits beside what looks like the remains of a Navajo sweat lodge built on layers of sediment deposited millions of years ago.

“Such a beautiful, lonely-feeling place,” O’Keeffe wrote, “part of what I call the Far Away.” Seven decades later it is still beautiful. And lonely, too. That’s in spite of, or maybe thanks to, the constant wail of cars and trucks passing on the highway, not to mention the droning buzz of a hydraulic fracturing operation nearby, which resembles a small village made up of tanker trucks, a few RVs and vaguely diabolical machinery, gleaming starkly against the burnished orange and grey dunes.
frackattack4-jpg
A fracking operation near the Black Place in northwestern New Mexico.
Jonathan Thompson


Back in the 1940s, as O’Keeffe mined the Black Place for inspiration, oil and gas drillers were already penetrating the region’s geologic formations in search of hydrocarbons. This is the San Juan Basin gas field, where some 40,000 wells have been drilled, making it one of the most productive coalbed methane fields in the world. Though some of those wells are near the Black Place, most were drilled a bit farther north, turning vast piñon and juniper forests into sprawling industrial zones. But when the market got glutted with natural gas, and prices crashed in 2009, the drill rigs mostly fled the San Juan Basin. Even local drilling companies sent their rigs to Pennsylvania, Ohio or North Dakota. The economy in Farmington, the basin's hub for the energy industry, withered.
blackplacemap-jpg
Gas (blue) and oil (pink) wells in the San Juan Basin. In the past, the heaviest drilling has been north of the Black Place, but now the action is moving south.


But after the drill rigs sat dormant for a couple of years, they started popping up again in the San Juan Basin. Only this time they’re going after oil, not natural gas, with horizontal drilling and extensive hydraulic fracturing of the Gallup Sandstone/Mancos Shale formation. It’s not yet a basin-wide boom: My Baker-Hughes Rig Count app shows just seven active rigs in the basin, compared to nearly 200 active rigs in the Williston, North Dakota, vicinity. But it sure feels boomy in the basin’s current sweet spot, near the Black Place. The web of dirt roads around the small, mostly Navajo communities of Nageezi and Lybrook and the edges of Chaco Culture National Historical Park teem with mud-caked trucks, and flaring and lit-up rigs smother night’s darkness.

This concentrated mini-boom, which is expected to grow — WPX Energy, in particular, has plans for a lot more drilling in the region — has alarmed environmentalists, O’Keeffe fans and Navajo activists (the land here is a checkerboard of tribal allotments and tribal and federal and state land). But it's also been good for some landowners. Earlier this year, the State of New Mexico and the feds worked out a deal to expedite lease agreements between energy companies and allottees, Native Americans who received land from the federal government in the late 19th Century, with the Gallup/Mancos Shale oil in mind. That has resulted in more drilling, but also a chunk of change for allottees, many of whom desperately need the cash (though the financial impact is often diluted by fractionated ownership of allotments).

The O’Keeffe movement, spearheaded by Abiquiu photographer Walter Nelson, merely wants to limit energy development on 75 to 100 acres of land around the Black Place. It’s a modest goal, but one that garnered global attention after a Santa Fe New Mexican story was picked up off the  national wires. But there’s a lot more at stake here: Badlands every bit as spectacular as the Bisti wilderness nearby; remnants of the Chaco culture that weren’t included in the park’s boundary; and the water and air of the people who have lived in the area for generations. In July, Duane Chili Yazzie, a longtime Navajo activist and candidate this year for Navajo Nation President, spoke out against the drilling before the U.S. Human Rights Network. “The damage is clear, irreparable and unconscionable,” he said.

It's probably useless to speculate about what O'Keeffe herself might have thought about the drilling. While she obviously had a deep appreciation for and connection to this particular landscape, her fondness was that of an artist, not an environmentalist, and her aesthetic sensibilities might have been more offended by the constant stream of highway traffic than the slow grind of a completed oil well.

duneclosebnw-jpg
Dune and sky near the Black Place.
Jonathan Thompson

The late summer afternoon ritual commences, and high puffy clouds coalesce into a grey almost as dark as these elephantine dunes. Time to go. Some seventy years ago, as a war raged in Europe and scientists on a mesa not far from O'Keeffe's home developed a weapon that could destroy worlds, the artist spent the night out here in a tent. When she awoke, this is what she saw:

It was a pale dawn, as dismal as anything I’ve ever seen— everything grey; grey sage, grey wet sand underfoot, grey hills, big gloomy looking clouds, a very pale moon … and still the wind.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.