Agreement gets oil flowing from Navajo land

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, March 6, 2014

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The heirs of Sam Comanche encourage other Navajo allottees to read the fine print before they sign leases with competing energy companies wishing to drill oil from their 160-acre parcels.

They offer this advice after signing a lucrative lease with Oklahoma-based WPX Energy, which has been leasing about 159,000 acres of state and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land on the oil-rich Mancos Shale in the San Juan Basin.

With New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signing a Feb. 27 agreement that will expedite the process for energy companies like WPX to extract oil from Native American allotments, the Comanche heirs advise others to work as a family business.

The agreement among the state, Bureau of Indian Affairs-Federal Indian Minerals Office and San Juan College will quicken the process for energy companies to negotiate leases on about 90,000-plus acres of allotments.

"We did it as a family," Delora Hesuse explained about how she and 26 other Comanche heirs came to an agreement with WPX Energy. "That's the only way it can get done."
Hesuse is the daughter of the late Henry P. Hesuse, the founder of Shii
Shi Keyah, which has been working since the 1980s toward better federal management of individual Indian trust assets in connection with the Cobell lawsuit.  
Leora Rafael, another Comanche heir, added that they received "a lot of money" from WPX.  Though she didn't disclose how much her family received, some families have purchased new vehicles and mobile homes with the money they're receiving from the oil companies, Rafael said.

"There's a lot of people that are happy," she said. "It's all that matters for us."

Randy Vandenberg of WPX Energy confirmed that the heirs have received royalty payments from the company.

"Their lease has been issued and they have received payment," Vandenberg said, explaining that WPX has leased a total of 44,000 acres in allotments. "We're excited for them."

Hesuse and Rafael thank Frankie Davis, an allottee from Pueblo Pintado, for advocating on their behalf. Davis, who publicly announced her candidacy for Navajo Nation President last week, sat on a panel of speakers that praised Martinez for inking the agreement.

"The allottees have spoken," Davis said on behalf of the 30 or so allottees present at the signing ceremony at San Juan College. "By signing the leases, it will help lift the allottees and Navajo people out of poverty."

In her statement, Martinez said the agreement could generate more than 1,000 jobs and provide revenue to over 60,000 allottees. An allotee is an individual who was allotted non-reservation land directly by the U.S. government in 1896, the governor said.

"With advances in horizontal drilling, their land value has greatly increased, and they have the potential to receive large royalties by leasing their resource-rich land to energy companies," Martinez said.

The governor added the agreement is a major breakthrough that will create jobs and improve the lives and wellbeing of landowners.

According to Martinez, nearly 300 Navajo allottees have already signed leases with oil companies to develop their land for energy production, but their requests had been held up because of staff reductions due to federal budget cuts. Under the agreement, the state and San Juan College will offer services to help allotees lease their mineral rights, she said.

David Martin, New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary, said the agreement could be a model for other states seeking to develop allotted lands.

"Under Gov. Martinez' innovative leadership in a new state and federal energy relationship, we have developed a collaborative and efficient way to help Navajo land owners receive compensation for mineral estate rights in the Gallup/Mancos shale," Martin said.

Since 2011 the value of allotments belonging to the 60,000 allottees has increased with the advances in horizontal drilling technology. Central to this agreement is San Juan College School of Energy, helping these allottees process through the system to lease their lands, said Toni Pendergrass, president of San Juan College.

"We stand ready to begin the job of processing the backlog of nearly 300 allottees who have already signed and negotiated leases with the petroleum industry," Pendergrass said. "This collaborative effort will greatly enhance our ties to energy development in New Mexico, but also allow Navajo landowners to greatly benefit from lucrative lease agreements."

FIMO Director Christopher Carusona applauded the state for developing the agreement and assisting the federal government, according to a Feb. 27 press release from the state's energy, minerals and natural resources department.

"Gov. Martinez has shown incredible leadership in addressing a pressing need to process an increasing number of lease agreements due to the expanding oil industry in New Mexico," Carusona said.

He added that the services provided through the agreement will help improve the quality of life for Navajo allottees such as the Comanche heirs who seek lease agreements.

Even though some allotees are striking lucrative deals with energy companies, heirs like Jeremiah Begay question if it's worth it, especially considering the environmental concerns with horizontal and then vertical drilling, and fracturing or "fracking" a rock layer to extract oil and gas.

Begay knows this from being a former oil rigger. He worked five years in the oilfields before he left the industry because he felt the wages were too low.

"What they usually do is just pump in concrete to fill space," Begay said about the fracking process. "There's tons of chemicals."

But if his family doesn't sign any leases, they would be missing out on the royalty payments and the companies would probably get the oil anyway by going in horizontally from another locale, he said.

"They're going to get to it, there's no way around it," said Begay, whose grandmother has allotments in Blanco Canyon, N.M.

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