Industry wants new pipeline on Navajo land scarred by decades of fossil fuel extraction

Navajo opponents say it is another way outsiders will profit by harming their environment and health.

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Image Credit: Jerry Redfern

This story was originally published by Capital & Main, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate crisis.

For the last several months, one of the nation’s largest pipeline operators has gone from one local government meeting on the Navajo Nation to another, outlining plans for what could end up being the country’s longest hydrogen pipeline. At those meetings, representatives from Tallgrass Energy have shown a map indicating the pipeline would run from Shiprock, New Mexico, in an arc across the northern reaches of the reservation to a spot north of Flagstaff, Arizona. And according to reports from others who attended the meetings, the final destination may actually be Mexico.

Tallgrass Energy, working through a new subsidiary called GreenView, wants to build the hydrogen pipeline because the Navajo Nation is “blessed with a wealth of natural resources” and “We believe they have the right and responsibility to develop and manage these resources, including projects like hydrogen,” says Tallgrass Vice President of Government Affairs Steven Davidson. He says that his company has been talking with the leaders of the Nation for the past two years, well before the local meetings began.

Map shown by Tallgrass Energy/GreenView during a meeting on the Navajo Nation. The preliminary route shown follows an existing natural gas pipeline owned by the Navajo Nation, running from near Shiprock, New Mexico, to a spot north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Photo courtesy Jessica Keetso/Capital & Main

On the other side, Jessica Keetso (Diné) has traveled across the Nation herself for the past two years, explaining how the production of hydrogen from natural gas is yet another fossil fuel development in a land that has suffered from decades of climate, environmental and health problems brought about by energy extraction industries, including oil, coal, gas and uranium. She and her group, Tó Nizhóní Ání (“Sacred Water Speaks” in Navajo), bridle at the notion of the Nation once again becoming a resource development zone for the benefit of companies off the reservation.

This pipeline is a symbol of the ongoing controversies that already divide the Navajo Nation — and New Mexico — over fossil fuel development. The most recent example happened a month ago when a ceremony to mark a new, historic 10-mile buffer banning new oil and gas leasing for 20 years around Chaco Culture National Historical Park was thwarted and diverted after protesters blocked roads into the park, demanding that fossil fuel development continue.

Davidson downplays any friction, saying that the pipeline project is still in its earliest phases. “We are approaching our activities in a way that is radically different than most other project proposals on the Navajo Nation, with earlier engagement and greater respect,” he says. “[We are] asking for permission to conduct ethnographic and cultural surveys along a potential route identified after discussions with the Navajo Nation Land Department.”

But in the northern and eastern regions of the reservation where oil and gas development already takes place, Keetso says the situation is already volatile. In a reservation bigger than West Virginia, she often drives for hours to get to chapter house meetings. (Chapter houses are a form of local Navajo government similar to city councils.) “I walk out of those meetings and I have to check my tires,” she says. “I’m kind of on everyone’s shit list on the Navajo Nation on the government level,” she says.

On the Navajo Nation, climate change and fossil fuel development aren’t mental exercises. “It’s real for us,” she says.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spearheaded the initiative to lure prospective hydrogen producers to the Four Corners and — by extension — the Navajo Nation. The Western Interstate Hydrogen Hub (WISHH) proposal is designed to land $1.25 billion in federal funds to create a network of hydrogen producing and using industries linking New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, and jumpstart a new economy around the energy source in those states. The federal government will fund up to 10 such projects, at least one of which will make hydrogen from fossil fuels, like natural gas. And the four states in WISHH all have natural gas deposits — including in the San Juan Basin, which lies primarily in New Mexico. Tallgrass is a member of the WISHH project, too, with plans to reopen the mothballed Escalante coal-fired power plant in Prewitt, New Mexico, and convert it to run on hydrogen.

But hydrogen from natural gas has four massive environmental hurdles: climate-warming methane leaks in the gas production chain; gas production leaves physical scars and industrial pollution; hydrogen is itself a climate warming gas when it escapes to the atmosphere; and there’s a need for massive underground geological reservoirs to store the CO2 that results from the gas-to-hydrogen production process. Historically, New Mexico has not been able to police its methane leaks and abandoned wells, despite recent rules mandating that this be done. But a $21 million, three-year project at New Mexico Tech to find a suitable CO2 sequestration location for a coal-fired power plant recently wrapped up with a new partner — Tallgrass’ Escalante hydrogen power plant. Robert Balch, director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center at New Mexico Tech, says the location search succeeded and an application to drill a sequestration well has been submitted to the EPA, a process he says should take two to three years.

Yet the Tallgrass-GreenView pipeline is not part of the WISHH project. In fact, Davidson confirmed that the hydrogen pipeline’s proposed route follows an existing natural gas pipeline right-of-way operated by the Navajo Nation itself, which runs more than 200 miles from Blanco, New Mexico, to a spot near Cameron, Arizona — away from the Four Corners and the WISHH partnership. Keetso says that a Tallgrass representative who spoke to the Coalmine Canyon Chapter House said the destination is in Mexico. When asked specifically about the pipeline’s destination, Davidson instead answered, “The design would allow it to be just as operationally feasible to deliver hydrogen … into the Four Corners region.” According to him, Tallgrass-GreenView has been talking with the Navajo Nation about energy projects since 2021 — well before the WISHH proposal. “Across two Navajo Presidential Executive Administrations and two different legislative bodies … we have heard the same call,” he says: Bring money and jobs to the reservation in the wake of two coal power plants shuttering. This also began before local chapter houses heard about the idea of a pipeline. (Repeated requests for comment sent via phone and email to the Navajo Nation Council communications staff went unanswered.)

Over the last two months, Davidson says GreenView has spread its message to local communities through the newly formed Four Corners Clean Energy Alliance “to help provide education across the region.” Tallgrass is educating at the federal level as well. In May, according to federal lobbyist registration documents, Tallgrass Energy hired HBW Resources to lobby on its behalf in Congress. In its first quarterly report a few days later, HBW wrote that it had lobbied the Department of Interior about energy infrastructure. Interior has 11 different agencies under its wings, and the first two listed on its website deal with Native American affairs. Third is the Bureau of Land Management, which manages hundreds of oil and gas leases on the Navajo Nation.

Matthew Gonzales wears many hats: He’s the mayor of tiny Cimarron, New Mexico; he’s the Southwest executive director for the Consumer Energy Alliance, a public relations and lobbying group that lists a who’s who of fossil fuel producers as members; and he’s the Southwest state affairs director for HBW Resources, Tallgrass’ new lobbying firm. Recently, through HBW, he began working with the Four Corners Clean Energy Alliance, which Gonzales says is the creation of Mark Freeland, a former Navajo Nation Council delegate.

The two have traveled across the Navajo Nation, hosting meetings and speaking to chapter houses about the benefits of hydrogen production. “We’ve got to educate these people so that they can get unbiased information, and they can make a determination on what is best for them,” Gonzales says of the new group’s work. At a meeting about hydrogen at the Nenahnezad Chapter House near Farmington, New Mexico, on May 30, presenters from a local Navajo farming initiative and state research schools went into detail about using and developing hydrogen. Freeland’s presentation consisted of providing his name and phone number and adding that if there were any questions, people could call him. He did not respond to repeated calls for this story.

Gonzales says a lot of the Four Corners Clean Energy Alliance’s work is countering the efforts of environmental groups. “There’s a lot of so-called environmentalists out there, and they’re not that. They’re hardly environmentalists. They claim that they care about the environment, or they claim that they care about disenfranchised communities. The stuff that they advocate for does nothing but hurt those communities,” he says.

“So I’m just sick and tired of seeing environmental activists come in and find one local who they can pay a paycheck to. And they’re willing to throw their own community under the bus,” he says.

Back on May 30, Keetso followed Freeland at the Nenahnezad Chapter House meeting. Telling the audience of her degree in environmental science from Northern Arizona University, she said, “So I’m not just an environmentalist — I actually have a degree in what I’m talking about.” She noted that green hydrogen, made from water and renewable energy, is problematic in a desert landscape like the Navajo Nation where water is scarce. She told the audience how so-called blue and gray hydrogen are both derived from fossil fuels, and that New Mexico has a lousy track record of policing spills and greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry. It’s no secret that in the past decade, oil and gas firms have abandoned the detritus of a century’s worth of oil and gas booms on the Navajo Nation. Whole fields of old, low- or no-production wells are left to rust and leak oil into waterways and methane, a potent climate warming gas, into the sky.

Davidson says that any hydrogen carried by the pipeline would have to meet the federal definition of clean hydrogen, which limits the amount of carbon emitted in the production process. Also, “We anticipate renewable-based clean hydrogen to be prominently represented,” he says. Another possibility would be so-called green hydrogen, which is made from water that is zapped with huge amounts of renewably generated electricity. It emits no polluting gases, but in a desert region like the Navajo Nation, water is a very precious resource.

Keetso has lived nearly her entire life on the Navajo Nation, and Tó Nizhóní Ání was founded 22 years ago. For more than two years she has talked with chapter houses, educating them about hydrogen and asking them to pass resolutions opposing any fossil fuel-based hydrogen projects. In late June, Teec Nos Pos Chapter was the latest to do so, 40 votes to one. Eight other individual chapters have done so, as well as the Eastern Agency Council, which represents 31 chapters and covers part of the Nation’s oil and gas producing region.

Around the beginning of June, a representative from Tallgrass spoke with the Coalmine Canyon Chapter House about the pipeline proposal, which would run through its land. Keetso spoke with the group later, and she says that what the group got from the Tallgrass presentation was different from what Davidson says his company had hoped for.

“The community thinks that this is just a done deal, that they can’t influence it in some way,” Keetso says. Half the group wanted to make sure that whoever was in the way of the pipeline gets compensation, and the other half thought, “This is really not a good idea,” she says.

When told of this confusion at chapter house presentations, Davidson of Tallgrass says that it’s a miscommunication. “While our early engagement may cause some confusion,” he says, “we believe it is the right thing to do and provides an opportunity for stakeholders to be true partners in the development of our projects.”

Keetso sees this as condescension to a community she lives in — and she says it’s a familiar pattern. Tribal members are “made to feel like their questions are not the most Western-educated questions … They’re treated as if they’re not intelligent,” she says. “That bothers me to no end.”

The arguments will likely continue for the foreseeable future, as the pipeline permitting process itself takes years. However, since the pipeline would be co-located on the path of an existing natural gas pipeline owned by the Navajo Nation itself, that process may be smoother than some.

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