Sunday, May 25, 2008

"No One Cares About The People... Just The Oil."

Yesterday I was intrigued by the way that we talk about the other and lose track of ourselves. We can talk about the Middle East -- the disconnect between the wealthy and the poor -- about money and corruption as if it had no bearing here...

I was looking for something small this morning, actually -- I was hoping to find one tiny thing that Native Americans used to do with oil that I didn't know about -- that's not what happened, though.

The Navajo and Hopi reservations in Utah and Arizona provide two examples. When Congress enlarged the Navajo Reservation with the Aneth extension in southeast Utah in 1933, it reserved 37.5 percent of any future oil or gas royalties for Utah Navajos, to be administered in trust by the state. The remaining 62.5 percent went to the Navajo Nation. Since the 1956 discovery of oil at Aneth and Montezuma Creek, Utah, oil companies have drilled 577 wells and pumped an estimated 370.7 million barrels of oil and another 339,100 cubic feet of natural gas from the area. In the process they contaminated ground water and area springs by injecting carbon dioxide and saltwater into wells to increase production. In 1990, there were ninety-nine spills of oil, saltwater, and chemicals in the Aneth fields, damaging 36,622 acres. Oil companies have been lax in cleaning up their sites or compensating Navajos. "There are no environmental rules or regulations here," complained Navajo councilman Andrew Tso. "No one cares about the people who live here, just the oil."

On the other hand, oil companies have paid at least $180 million in royalties, including $60 million to the Utah Navajo Trust Fund. But little has trickled down to Aneth residents. Seventy-five percent of the 6,500 Utah Navajos in the region have no electricity or running water. Most make a hundred-mile round trip each week to haul in water. Recent audits disclosed that state and tribal mismanagement, poor business decisions, fraud, and bribes have bankrupted the Utah Navajo Trust Fund. In addition, the Navajo Nation has not returned to its Utah chapter houses a fraction of the oil revenues it collects. And now oil production in Aneth is steadily falling. In 1994, the Navajo Nation Council created its own Navajo Oil and Gas Company and imposed a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in Aneth, calling for the enforcement of federal environmental protection laws. The drilling continues.

Author: David Rich Lewis. Adapted from: Lewis, David R. 1995. "Native Americans and the Environment: A survey of twentieth century issues." American Indian Quarterly, 19: 423-450, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press.

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