Navajo Nation Discord Over Proposed Pipeline on NM Tribal Land

One of the nation’s largest pipeline operators has held several local government meetings in the Navajo Nation to discuss plans for the country’s proposed longest hydrogen pipeline. Tallgrass Energy representatives 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, according to a recent story published by Capital & Main.

Working through a new subsidiary called GreenView, Tallgrass Energy wants to build the hydrogen pipeline because the Navajo Nation is “blessed with a wealth of natural resources,” said Steven Davidson, Tallgrass Vice President of Government Affairs. He says that his company has been talking with Navajo tribal leaders for the past two years.

Meanwhile, Jessica Keetso (Diné) has traveled across tribal lands 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), cringe at the possibility that the land could be viewed as 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.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spearheaded the initiative to lure prospective hydrogen producers to the Four Corners and 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 ten similar projects, at least one of which will make hydrogen from fossil fuels like natural gas. 

The plan isn’t as easy as it seems. 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.” 

Davidson also says 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 said. 

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,” said Gonzales. 

At a meeting about hydrogen at the Nenahnezad Chapter House near Farmington on May 30, presenters from a local Navajo farming initiative and state research schools went into detail about using and developing hydrogen. 

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,” said Gonzales.

Keetso followed Freeland at the Nenahnezad Chapter House meeting on May 30. 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. “We anticipate renewable-based clean hydrogen to be prominently represented,” said Davidson. 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 gasses, 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.

“The community thinks that this is just a done deal, that they can’t influence it in some way,” said Keetso. 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 said.

The arguments will likely continue for the foreseeable future, as the pipeline permitting process itself takes years. 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.