Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

November 11, 2022

Poisoning the Air we Breathe -- San Juan Oil and Gas Fields Poisoning Dine'

A sign welcomes passersby to an “Energy Sacrifice Zone” outside of Counselor, New Mexico, on Oct. 26, 2021. The Greater Chaco region has become a flashpoint between environmental activists and the oil and gas industry, which is expanding into the oil-rich land. Credit: Jimmy Cloutier/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

Poisoning the Air we Breathe -- San Juan Oil and Gas Fields Poisoning Dine' 

Brenda Norrell
Censored News

A new Climate Trace map shows the places releasing the most dangerous greenhouse and toxic emissions in the world. In the Southwest, the Permian oil and gas fields, on the New Mexico and Texas border, tops the list, followed by Los Angeles and other urban areas.

The most toxic polluters in the world include the Four Corners Power Plant, San Juan Coal Mine, and Navajo Coal Mine on the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, near Farmington, N.M., according to Climate Trace data just released at COP27 in Egypt.

The San Juan Oil and Gas Field in northwest New Mexico is also among the most poisonous in the world. President Biden is now opening up more land in the Greater Chaco region for oil and gas drilling and fracking, which is opposed by Pueblos and Dine' defenders in the region.

When Bahe Katenay of Big Mountain spoke out against the oil and gas wells poisoning the sacred region of Dinetah, and the role of the Navajo Nation government, Bahe was censored by Indian Country Today.

Since then, there has been little reporting of the respiratory diseases resulting from this poisonous air in the Bloomfield, N.M., area on the Navajo Nation, or the destruction to the land and poisoning of the water.


The following comments by Bahe Katenay, Navajo from Big Mountain, Arizona, were censored and deleted by Indian Country Today in September of 2004. 

Katenay is responding to the fact that the Bush administration
developed a task force to facilitate industry requests and fast-track
requests for drilling. The Bureau of Land Management increased oil and
gas drilling permits by 70 percent since the previous administration.

Bahe Katenay, Navajo from Big Mountain, Ariz., said oil and gas
drilling is violating Navajos’ most sacred region, the Dine’ place of
origin, 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 toward 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

(In 2004, a report by the Environmental Working Group’s showed the
the federal government has offered 27.9 million acres of public and private
land in New Mexico for oil and gas drilling. New Mexico ranked 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 place of origin of Dine’, was among the top three counties targeted, along with Eddy and Lea counties, according to the 2004 report.)

Now: The United States and Russia lead the world in emissions, poisoning the world's air, according to new Climate Trace data.

The United States and Russia lead the world in the most poisonous emissions, according to new data from Climate Trace. The Permian, Texas, oil and gas field, near the bottom corner of New Mexico, leads the world in dangerous emissions. The Marcellus oil and gas field, in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border, is number three in the world for releasing poisonous gases into the air. The South Pars oil and gas field in Iran is the fifth. The massive cluster on the map is in China, with steel plants and power plants releasing the most dangerous emissions.

Poisoning the Air in North Dakota: Bakken Oil and Gas Field

(Above) Poisoning the air in North Dakota. A new Climate Trace map shows the Bakken oil and gas field -- located west of New Town of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation -- is the fifth most polluting place in North America, spewing greenhouse and toxic gases into the air.

"Climate TRACE has incorporated new data — including evidence from studies of satellite-detected emissions from practices like flaring and methane leakage in places like Russia, Turkmenistan, the U.S., and the Middle East — to produce updated emissions data that more fully account for the sector’s global emissions."

About the author

Brenda Norrell has been a journalist in Indian country for 40 years, beginning at the Navajo Times during the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation. She was a correspondent for Associated Press, USA Today and Lakota Times. After serving as a longtime staff reporter for Indian Country Today, she was censored and terminated in 2006. She began Censored News to reveal what is being censored. Now in its 17th year, Censored News is a service to Indigenous Peoples and human rights, with no ads or revenues.

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