West closely watching N.M. gas dispute

Energy firms seeking to increase drilling on site sacred to Navajos

October 14, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NAGEEZI, N.M. - The Navajo revere this remote area around a mesa in northwestern New Mexico as the place where the mythical figure Changing Woman gave birth to two warrior sons who made the universe safe.

Energy companies want this area for its strategic location in the San Juan Basin, a geologic mother lode of natural gas reserves in the Four Corners region that has become one of North America's richest sources of mineral wealth.

The clash of these conflicting values has laid bare the Navajo Nation's contentious relations with oil and gas companies, including accusations of underpayment for land leases and negligence by the government agencies overseeing such agreements.

Residents of gas-rich areas throughout the West are following the dispute as energy companies seek to increase drilling in environmentally and culturally sensitive areas to try to meet growing demands for clean-burning natural gas. Tight supplies have caused natural gas prices to jump 20 percent this month alone.

The dispute reached a boiling point over the summer when the Bureau of Land Management accepted gas companies' requests to allow exploration on the mesa and on Gobernador Knob, another site that is sacred to the Navajos.

The tribe president, Joe Shirley Jr., and a Navajo environmental group resisted the proposals, even though the land in question is not on the Navajo reservation.

Calvert Garcia, president of the nearby Nageezi Chapter of the Navajo Nation and an aide to Shirley, said: "It's like putting a gas well on top of the Lincoln Memorial. The insensitivity of the gas companies when it comes to our culture is hard to fathom."

Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said energy companies were trying to respect Navajo concerns while also finding a way to meet the nation's energy needs. "Our thought process is, `Let's make sure we understand these areas well before getting out a magic marker and drawing a circle around them that says `off-limits,'" he said.

In any case, officials at the BLM office in Farmington, N.M., responded to the controversy in July by indefinitely halting any leasing or drilling activities in the two areas, to the frustration of energy companies that were hoping to seize upon historically high gas prices by increasing drilling in the basin.

At stake, energy industry executives say, is the ability to expand domestic gas production when supplies are tight. Prices have climbed at least 50 percent in the past year to about $4.60 per 1,000 cubic feet, and analysts say they expect prices to remain around that level or higher for several years.

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