History Repeats: The Rattlesnake Field and Aneth oil
A look back as helium development is pushed for Navajo Nation
THE NEWS: Diné land protectors are pushing back against a Navajo Nation Oil & Gas company proposal to drill for helium on the Navajo Nation. I’d encourage you to read Arlyssa Becenti’s reporting in the Arizona Republic to gain a better understanding of what helium’s about and why it’s being opposed.
One potential target for development is the Rattlesnake Field, near Shiprock, a significant spot in the history of energy colonialism on the Navajo Nation. I’m running the following excerpt from my most recent book, Sagebrush Empire, to give you the deep dive on the scandal that played out in relation to the Rattlesnake Field. It also gives a deep history on the Aneth Field, also in the Four Corners Country.
Imagine the scene: A dimly lit room in a Santa Fe hotel, perhaps the La Fonda, on a crisp night in October 1923. A group of men sit around a table, wearing coats and ties, playing a game of poker, the smell of cigar smoke mingling with that of piñon burning in the fireplace. One of the men is Herbert J. Hagerman, distinguished-looking, perhaps a bit pompous, with a long face and hooded eyes. In 1937 writer Erna Fergusson will describe Hagerman as “a high-collared aristocrat with diplomatic experience in Imperial Russia, a big ranch in the Pecos valley, a turbulent career as governor of New Mexico, a love of calm and security, an unassailable integrity, a reluctance to fight, and doomed always to be the center of bitter controversy.” He is the federal commissioner to the Navajo Tribe and will auction off a slew of oil and gas leases on behalf of the newly formed Navajo Tribal Council the following day. The other men around the table are potential bidders.
The poker players take a break, and Hagerman motions one of the players and a friend of his, railroad man C. S. Muñoz, to follow him to a private area. Hagerman asks Muñoz which parcels he plans to bid on. Most of the leases up for auction are in the Shiprock, New Mexico, area, where an oil and gas rush had erupted a few years earlier. Muñoz mentions the Tocito structure, which geologists have deemed to be the most promising of the lot, as well as the Hogback. Hagerman raises his eyebrows. Everyone will be bidding for the Tocito, which will surely push the price up into the fifty- to sixty-thousand-dollar range. “Maybe consider the Rattlesnake,” Hagerman says, and then walks back to the playing table. It’s strange advice. The geologists had ranked the Rattlesnake structure at the bottom of the barrel because intrusive dikes would make it undesirable for drilling. The next day, Indian Affairs commissioner Charles H. Burke himself will preside over the auction, one of the first of its kind, and made possible only by a major overhaul of the entire Navajo structure of government.
Prior to the Long Walk, the tribe was divided up into political units of a dozen or more families, each governed by its own naataanii, or headmen. While the headmen would gather for occasional all-tribal councils, there was no central seat of government, no chief who represented the tribe as a whole. That was a source of frustration for those trying to make deals or treaties with the tribe, yet it worked well for a highly mobile and dispersed society that spanned tens of thousands of square miles. After the return from Bosque Redondo, an ad hoc governing system slowly emerged that, in some ways, echoed what had existed previously. Navajo lands were divided up into agencies, each of which had a white superintendent appointed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Each agency also had a handful of headmen who would come together to determine whether to allow miners to prospect on their land, or perhaps lobby the government on behalf of their constituents.
That system was in place in the early 1920s, when big oil companies started poking around just inside the reservation in the Shiprock Agency, near the banks of the San Juan River. The agency superintendent called the agency leaders together to consider allowing the companies to drill. The headmen at Shiprock, which remains a defiant chapter to this day, turned them down repeatedly. Finally they issued just one lease, to Midwest Oil, only after getting a number of concessions from the company.
Frustrated, the other companies appealed to Washington, which had just become more friendly to industry with the election of President Warren G. Harding. At the behest of the industries that had financed his campaign, Harding had appointed Albert B. Fall to be secretary of interior. Fall was a cigar-chomping, rapacious Republican rancher and friend to oil barons. He first entered New Mexico territorial politics in the 1890s, serving as a territorial representative and as attorney general. In 1912, he was elected as one of the brand-new state’s first senators, and continued to serve until 1921, when Harding appointed him his cabinet.
In his first year as senator Fall went on tirades against the very idea of public lands and conservation thereof with rhetoric that would be echoed decades later by the Sagebrush Rebels. “The conservation of the natural resources of New Mexico means a restriction upon the individual,” he ranted to the Senate in 1912. “And means that upon such forest reserves and Indian reserves the gentle bear, the mountain lion, and the timber wolf are conserved, so that they may attack his herds, his cattle, and his sheep.” He went on to propose to his colleagues, “as an act of justice, to give those forest reserves to the charge of the people who know what a forest reserve is.”
Fall was from the Manifest Destiny school of land use, and saw the West as a big grab bag of oil, gas, coal, timber, and minerals. “All natural resources should be made as easy of access as possible to the present generation,” he once said. “Man cannot exhaust the resources of nature and never will.” His early hostility towards public lands in general mellowed during his time in the nation’s capital, probably because he realized that his oil baron buddies could exploit public lands even if they did stay in public hands, so long as regulatory hindrances were kept to a minimum. He eventually would come out in support of creating new national monuments, and was an architect of the General Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which brought some order to the drilling free-for-all on federal lands and which to this day guides public lands energy development. He no longer wanted to privatize all public lands, he just wanted private interests to have unfettered access to the resources embedded within those lands. And when he was appointed to Harding’s cabinet, he was prepared to roll back and squash the conservation ethic that President Theodore Roosevelt and Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot had brought to the nation’s lands two decades earlier. His ideology extended to the Naval Oil Reserves, which he managed to open up to general leasing, and to Indian reservations, particularly those created by executive order, which he considered to be the property of the federal government, not the tribes in question.
Fall put this credo to work in San Juan County, Utah, in the area known as the Paiute Strip. In 1884, President Chester A. Arthur signed an executive order adding all of the land in Utah south of the San Juan River to the Navajo Nation. Eight years later, in order to clear the way for the 1892 gold rush along the lower San Juan River, President Benjamin Harrison took about half of the Utah addition, the portion west of the 110th meridian, which contains Navajo Mountain, back, putting it into the public domain and thus opening it back up to mining claims and homesteading. That piece of land became known as the Paiute Strip because it was home to the Southern San Juan Paiute Tribe. When the gold rush turned out to be a dud, the land was returned to the Navajo Nation, and in 1907 it again became tribal land, only this time as the Southern San Juan Paiute reservation. But greed wouldn’t let the Paiute Strip alone: In 1920, when oil prices shot sky high and wildcatters were descending on the region in search of Texas tea, a company called Paradise Oil applied for a lease on the land. Commissioner Burke told Paradise that a lease would not be possible until the land was taken away from the Paiutes—whose population had been ravaged by the 1918 Influenza in preceding years—and put into the public domain. In July 1922, Interior Secretary Fall did just that, stealing stolen land all over again.
Fall had to tread more delicately in regards to the Navajo Nation, since it was far larger and more powerful than the Southern San Juan Paiute tribe. In order to bypass the recalcitrant Shiprock Agency and get its oil flowing, Interior Secretary Fall first appointed a Navajo “Business Council” of three people to make leasing decisions for the entire reservation. Commissioner Burke—a well-known assimilationist who had banned Indigenous religious ceremonies—nixed that idea, however, since it was so blatantly undemocratic. He and Fall instead planned out a centralized, representative-style Navajo tribal council, with delegates from each agency. They assigned New Mexican attorney Herbert Hagerman to be the special commissioner to “negotiate with the Indians.”
The Navajo voters elected twenty-four delegates, and in July 1923 the first tribal council was seated. The Navajo Nation had a centralized government for the first time ever, which should have been a step towards greater sovereignty and self-determination. Instead, the council promptly handed to Hagerman all powers to sign and negotiate oil and gas leases. Fall resigned around the same time under pressure for his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal as well as for his role in the Bursum Bill, which would have robbed Pueblo Indians in New Mexico of thousands of acres of land and water rights.
Hagerman organized the first Navajo lease sale to take place just a few months later in Santa Fe. Bidding on the Hogback leases was fierce, netting the tribe more than $80,000. The Rattlesnake, though, was thought to be a dud, and only Muñoz bid on it, paying just $1,000 for a 4,080-acre lease. Hagerman signed the lease on behalf of the Navajo Nation, and set a royalty rate of 12.5 percent, which was the same rate that the Mineral Leasing Act set for minerals taken from federal lands.
Later it was discovered that just two days before the lease sale, Hagerman had received the geological report on the Rattlesnake, showing that it was likely to be a bonanza. Yet he had kept the new information under wraps from all perspective buyers, save for, allegedly, Muñoz. After the sale Hagerman urged the Department of Interior to expedite approval of the Rattlesnake lease, which it did, and within a few months of the sale Muñoz’s Santa Fe Co. had drilled multiple gushers. One Rattlesnake well would go on to produce millions of barrels of crude over the next decade, the grade so high that it was dangerous to pipe it to the rail line in Gallup or the small refinery then in Farmington. Soon after striking oil, Muñoz sold a percentage of his interest to Continental Oil for between $3.25 million, none of which went to the tribe that actually owned the oil and the land.
Hagerman later came under attack in Congress for what appeared to be insider trading to the advantage of Muñoz—whom detractors referred to as Hagerman’s “intimate friend”—at the expense of the tribe. Had that report been available to the public, bidding would have been far higher for the Rattlesnake, and the tribal government would have received a much larger payment.
Hagerman also was accused of misrepresenting the Navajo Nation by supporting, purportedly on the tribal council’s behalf, a congressional bill that would have slashed royalty revenues for tribes. The bill would have diverted 90 percent of the royalties paid for drilling on executive order reservations to the federal and respective state governments, leaving just 10 percent—or a royalty rate of 1.25 percent—to the tribal nation whose oil was being purloined by the petro-corporations. The bill had originated back when Fall was a senator, and hinged upon Fall’s belief that reservations created by executive order, rather than by treaty or Congress, were the property of the federal government, and that the General Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 should apply to them. The bill bounced around in Congress for years, nearly passing in 1925, an indication that, among much of the federal government, the policy of Indian removal hadn’t really ended back in the nineteenth century, but had instead just changed form. Finally, in 1927, Congress passed a bill that affirmed that all royalties would go to the tribe in question. It was an improvement, but it would not stop dishonest brokers from negotiating terrible leases for tribes for the next fifty years.
While Fall ultimately would be remembered for the fact that he was the first cabinet member to go to jail, his real legacy lies in his role in setting the groundwork for oil and gas and coal development on public lands and, to a lesser extent, tribal lands. The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 that he helped usher through as senator still applies today. And a few decades after the Navajo Nation tribal council was formed, it signed off on some sizable oil leases in the Aneth oil field in San Juan County, Utah.
Oilmen began poking around in the Aneth area on the southern end of the Paradox Basin in the late 1940s. What they found proved promising, sparking interest far and wide. In November 1956 the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a lease sale for parcels on that section of the Navajo Nation, which would come to be known as the Aneth oil field, bringing in $27 million in lease bonus payments to the tribe. In return, the companies would get the right to extract the tribe’s petroleum for the next ninety-nine years. A Time magazine article about the sale called the Utah Navajo a bunch of “lucky Indians.”
The drill rigs arrived, roaring away day and night, the pumpjacks started their slow grind, and the oil flowed. The workers poured in, along with their high wages, to a place that had little infrastructure, law enforcement, or any other services to handle them. Few of the jobs on the rigs went to local Navajo people. Navajos who did get hired were paid less than their white cohorts, and were forbidden from speaking their native tongue. Most of the white workers lived in Cortez or even Farmington, commuting back and forth on the rough and narrow McElmo Canyon road. My father was a teenager at the time, living up the road in Dolores, Colorado, and he worked summers on a farm that grew melons and other crops in McElmo Canyon. The farm went belly-up soon after the oil rush began because the roughnecks would come by at night and trample the fields and steal the melons. It’s one of a legion of ways an extractive boom can unravel the social fabric of a community or a region.
For the residents of the Aneth Chapter, things were much worse. Rig-hands stole sheep and sometimes took out entire flocks while speeding along the backroads in their oil company trucks. The workers brought drugs, alcohol, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted diseases. Noxious gases poured out of the processing plants and the rigs. Produced water—which occurs alongside oil, is often briney and contaminated with various hydrocarbons, and that is pumped out of the wells in massive amounts—was dumped onto the land or put back in shallow wells, allowing it to contaminate springs on which locals had long relied. In 1972 a pipeline leading out of the field burst, spilling nearly three-hundred-thousand gallons of crude, which ran down a wash and into the San Juan River. The oil slick floated two hundred miles downriver, through San Juan County. It killed countless fish and coated rocks, birds, and beavers on the way. The fledgling Environmental Protection Agency led the multi-agency cleanup effort on the San Juan branch of Lake Powell, one of its first big actions.
The first portion of the reservation north of the San Juan River had been added by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 by executive order. In 1933 the Aneth Extension was added to the Navajo Nation, along with the aforementioned Paiute Strip. They came with a unique provision: If and when oil was produced on the lands, the producer would pay a 12.5 percent royalty to the tribe, as was the case elsewhere in Indian Country. Royalties from Aneth oil, however, would be divided up, with 37.5 percent of it going to the State of Utah, which was to use the funds to benefit the people living within those lands; in 1968 the mandate was expanded so that the funds would be spent “for the health, education, and general welfare of the Navajo Indians residing in San Juan County.” The other 62.5 percent would go to the Navajo Nation’s central government. This arrangement would be a point of contention for decades to follow and would even seep into the controversy over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.
As the oil flowed out—38 million barrels in 1959—and the damages accrued, royalty revenues flowed back in to the tribal government and the State of Utah, which had been designated as the keeper of the Utah Navajo’s portion. It should be understood that “royalty” is a sort of euphemism that obscures what’s really going on here. A royalty is not a tax or a fee imposed upon the oil company. Rather, it is the price the oil company pays to take the oil from its owner and sell it elsewhere for a profit. Yes, the owner. Federal minerals are owned by the American people and tribal minerals are owned by the tribal nation’s citizens, just as the oil lying under private land belongs to the landowner unless it’s split estate land. It’s an important distinction to understand. When framed as a tax or fee, a rate of 12.5 percent of the sale-value seems rather high. But when a royalty is seen for what it actually is, the wholesale price, then the rate seems quite low, since, effectively, the oil company is turning around and selling the same oil that it pulled out of the ground at an 800 percent markup.
Even with the low rates, production from the Aneth field netted the Navajo Nation millions of dollars, and for years was one of its leading sources of revenue. Since a portion of the royalties also went to the Utah Navajos by way of the state’s Indian Affairs Commission, the Navajo Nation didn’t feel the need to redistribute much of its share back to the Aneth area. The San Juan County Board of Commissioners, made up entirely of white men, similarly refused to provide adequate services to its citizens that lived on the reservation.
Meanwhile, the state was spending the share intended for the Utah Navajos in ways that didn’t match the mandate. In the 1970s, for example, the state spent over $200,000 on facilities and a private collection of pots and other antiquities for the new Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding. Some of the artifacts that were purchased had been taken illegally from public lands, and the big payout was criticized for incentivizing pothunting and looting. Cash from the fund also went towards building off-reservation roads and to the social services center and the College of Eastern Utah, both in Blanding. Most egregiously, the fund was used to purchase a shopping mall in a Salt Lake suburb, benefitting the white chairman of the board that chose how to spend the funds more than the Utah Navajos. The end result was that the people who lived in the oil field felt as if they were giving just about everything and receiving virtually nothing in return. They were getting screwed over by the oil companies, the feds, the state, the county, and even their own tribal government.
The situation boiled over when an oil-field worker shot at a sheepherder who tried to stop the worker from stealing his sheep. Long before the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe would rise up to try to stop a destructive pipeline from being built across their water source in 2016, bringing international attention to the cause of environmental justice and Indigenous rights, the people of Aneth took on the oil corporations. In March 1978, hundreds of Diné—men in jeans and cowboy hats, women in velveteen skirts, longhairs, shorthairs—set out across the spare landscape of the Aneth Chapter toward the Texaco pumping plant, kicked out the employees, and occupied it. They also blocked the only road into the area, ceasing production across the whole field.
Among those assembled were members of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation, which had formed several years earlier to fight against systemic violence in reservation border towns such as Gallup and Farmington, where a group of white teenagers had murdered three Diné men and were sent to a juvenile detention center rather than prison. The group soon expanded its mission to include “protection of our natural resources against white corporations, the protection of our Mother Earth, and the protection of individual rights.” The coalition held demonstrations in Farmington and was involved, along with the American Indian Movement, in the 1975 armed takeover of the Fairchild Semiconductor plant in Shiprock, where it issued a statement saying: “It is time for Navajos to control their own domain and their own destiny, rather than to remain victims of the white man’s industrial enterprises.”
The Aneth group wanted the oil companies to stop wrecking their lands and livelihoods, but they also wanted the Navajo Nation to start distributing the oil revenues more fairly. The occupiers demanded that the oil companies hire more Diné workers, that they provide scholarships for local students, and that oil field workers refrain from bringing drugs and alcohol onto the reservation. After seventeen days of occupation, a settlement was reached, and the oil companies were allowed to return.
Often left out in coverage of this act of resistance is the context in which it took place. There was the national context, of course, which involved the rise of the American Indian Movement, the Wounded Knee Occupation, and the continuation of the counterculture movement that rose up to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War. And tribal governments, including the Navajo Nation’s, were also working within the establishment to wrest control of their energy resources from the federal government’s hands, forming CERT, or the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, in 1975. The local context bears mentioning, as well: Among the white population of San Juan County, and much of the rest of the rural West, the Sagebrush Rebellion was erupting at the same time. The Aneth uprising and the Sagebrush Rebellion were diametrically opposed to one another. Really, the Aneth group fit the definition of “rebel” far better than the Sagebrush Rebels. The Sagebrush Rebels were fighting to hang onto power and dominance, the Aneth group was rebelling against the established power structure. Yet they also moved in parallel. Both groups were pushing back against the federal government’s policies and pushing for more self-determination. At that time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was still negotiating oil and gas leases for tribal nations, a practice that had locked the Navajo Nation into century-long leases with relatively low royalty rates (in the early eighties Congress and a Supreme Court ruling would change that). And both the Sagebrush Rebels and the Aneth protestors were not happy with their respective central governments—in Washington, DC, and Window Rock—and the way they tended to treat outliers like them as if they were distant colonies.
The end of the occupation by no means marked the end of the problems, or protests, in the Aneth oil field. As the easy-to-get-at oil was depleted, drilling intensified along with the environmental effects. Oil companies started flooding old wells with millions of gallons of pressurized groundwater to push out more crude—this in a place where few homes have running water, and some people must drive for an hour or more to fill up tanks for domestic use. They then switched to shooting carbon dioxide into the wells, a practice known as enhanced oil recovery.
The web of oil infrastructure that is tangled up with the landscape and placed near homes leaks volatile organic compounds, methane, and sulfur dioxide. Spills of oil and produced water are common, still: Between 2000 and 2014, San Juan County led the state for “accidental releases” of harmful materials, according to EPA data, with oil and gas companies reporting 2,200 such releases, four times more than in Salt Lake County, the second highest in the state. In 1992, a high-pressure oil pipe ruptured and sprayed crude all over someone’s house. Mobil offered the owner less than $1,000 in compensation. In a story about it that year in the Deseret News, a Navajo Tribal Council delegate from Aneth was quoted as saying such incidents were common: “There are no environmental rules or regulations here. No one cares about the people who live here, just the oil.”
The locals again demanded reform. “Something drastic has to happen,” Rebecca Benally—who would later become a San Juan County commissioner and key player in the Bears Ears National Monument debate—told a group of protesters in 1992, as quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune. “You have to respect Navajo culture, otherwise we know you’re here for the money and personal gain.” Several months later, the resistance blocked a road to an oil facility in protest and then, after an oil field explosion in 1997, a group of locals set up a tepee in front of the Mobil offices, essentially shutting it down for seventy-two hours until a deal with oil field managers could be reached.
In the meantime, at the urging of the Navajo Nation, the Environmental Protection Agency launched investigations into the practices of the oil companies there. In 2002 the agency fined Texaco close to $400,000 for violating the Clean Water Act and required it to build a project to deliver potable water to area homes. In 2004 and 2005 the EPA made ExxonMobil pay $6.5 million for violations of both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Shortly thereafter ExxonMobil sold its stake of the field to Resolute Energy and the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, and Resolute later sold out to Elk Petroleum, which is in bankruptcy as I write this.
The Aneth oil field is mostly located on the Navajo Nation, so the public land wars don’t play out on the sere landscape anymore. But Aneth players and politics have significantly influenced the fight. Mark Maryboy was active in the Aneth protests, served as a San Juan County commissioner, and is one of the prime movers behind the Bears Ears National Monument designation. Rebecca Benally was Maryboy’s ally in pushing back against the oil companies, but later joined up with the Sagebrush Rebels in virulently opposing national monument designation. While other Utah chapters would overwhelmingly support the national monument, the Aneth Chapter would become deeply divided over whether to support or oppose the designation, with the opposition usually prevailing.
Today, the Aneth oil field is a place of eerie and subtle beauty that most people miss as they are speeding through on their way to the narrow canyons and more dramatic topography to the west. But if you slow down and really open your eyes you’ll begin to detect beauty in the subdued purple and ash hues of the buttes, in the massive blocks of desert-varnished sandstone that look like dice tossed carelessly across the earth by the gods. Horses range freely among the sage, ribcage ripples lining their sides. And everywhere one looks, there are the pumpjacks, looking like metallic cutouts of Tyrannosaurus Rexes, grinding their relentless languid grind as they pull out the three-hundred-million-year-old remains of phytoplankton and zooplankton caught up in mud and silt back when this was all covered by an enormous, shallow sea.