New Report: Methane Waste and Pollution a Growing Problem on the Navajo Nation

Oil and gas industry wasting $4.8 million in Navajo natural gas, as much as $1.2 million in tribal royalties every year

April 29, 2021
Kelsey Robinson, (512) 691-3404,
Tim Raphael, (971) 269-4749,

As the Navajo Nation works to enact new requirements to protect air quality and limit methane waste and pollution on Navajo lands, an updated analysis shows this is a growing problem with oil and gas companies wasting disproportionately more energy than in other areas, according to a report released today by the Environmental Defense Fund, Diné C.A.R.E., NAVA EP, Grand Canyon Trust and Western Leaders Network.

The report indicates companies waste roughly 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year from operations on Navajo lands, approximately $4.8 million worth of natural gas. This deprives the Navajo Nation and allottees of as much as $1.2 million in royalties every year while producing 21,700 metric tons of methane emissions that pollute the air and threaten the health of Navajo communities. This volume of wasted gas is more than enough to meet the usage needs of every home on the Navajo Nation for five months.

“Impacts such as air pollution are no longer just in one area of Navajo lands, it is everywhere,” said Samuel Sage, Vice-President Diné C.A.R.E. “The companies that come onto Navajo lands know how they can make short-cuts with very little oversight. There has to be a way for our leadership to listen and understand the impacts of allowing extractive companies to come onto Navajo lands to extract minerals. They need to be involved and look out for their relatives and people.”

The analysis shows the methane emissions rate on Navajo lands is more than double the national average. It shows that control requirements such as those the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection agency is considering can help significantly limit this waste and pollution and it suggests that with further improvements this methane venting, flaring and leaks could be limited even further in order to protect the health of local communities.

“This analysis shows that methane waste and other forms of oil and gas pollution are hitting Navajo communities particularly hard,” said Jon Goldstein, director of legislative and regulatory affairs at Environmental Defense Fund. “This problem underlines the wisdom of the Navajo EPA’s efforts under President Nez to establish strong rules that increase tribal sovereignty and protect the resources and wellbeing of the Navajo Nation.”

Oil and gas has been produced on Navajo lands since the 1920s and continues to be an important source of revenue to the Navajo Nation. Unfortunately, spills, leaks and other burdens associated with this activity have created health impacts for Navajo communities and raised environmental justice concerns.

“Being good stewards of the land is central to Navajo people,” said Herman Farley, Red Mesa Chapter President. “It makes no sense to waste resources like natural gas – it’s bad for our communities because we lose revenue and suffer the effects of increasing methane and air pollution. The Navajo Nation is making important progress to apply strong rules to oil and gas operators on our lands.”

Largely avoidable methane emissions can also lead to forms of pollution with serious health problems for tribal communities, and action to cut these methane emissions will lessen the burden from these other forms of pollution as well. Emissions from oil and gas production also contain toxic, even deadly, gases like hydrogen sulfide, toluene, xylene and benzene. These Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) total 214 tons per year on the Navajo Nation. Methane leaks also allow volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to be released. These VOCs are one of the main building blocks of ozone pollution, which can harm the respiratory system, trigger asthma attacks and worsen emphysema. Ozone levels in New Mexico’s San Juan County are close to surpassing federal health standards—putting communities there at risk. The methane wasted every year by oil and gas operations on Navajo lands are largely avoidable and equal to the pollution caused by 400,000 automobiles per year.

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency has the opportunity to increase tribal sovereignty and revenue through enacting comprehensive requirements to reduce methane pollution and waste levels. The agency has proposed a good set of requirements that could be strengthened further with targeted improvements that build upon what other leading jurisdictions have successfully implemented. Limiting natural gas waste represents a natural continuation of the Navajo Nation’s strong record of responsible resource management. The Navajo Nation has the opportunity to exercise its sovereignty and its commitment to preserving the health of its people, while protecting its resources and curtailing a potent source of greenhouse gases.

The report follows a successful bipartisan vote in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday to restore federal rules to cut methane and air pollution from oil and gas operations. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez supported the methane Congressional Review Act resolution, S.J.Res.14, writing, “And while the Navajo EPA is developing our own regulations to limit harmful pollution from these sources, federal new and existing source standards are also of vital importance since our air knows no boundaries and pollution from neighboring areas can still have a negative impact on tribal communities.”

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