Hopi Tribal Council disapproves drilling project

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) September 2010

Hopi lawmakers have rescinded their approval of a project to determine whether tribal land is suitable for carbon storage.

The Tribal Council narrowly rejected the federally funded project last week that it had approved in July. The northern Arizona reservation was one of two areas in the state identified by a group of researchers for such testing.

Lawmakers raised concern about potential environmental damage, groundwater contamination and risks to public safety in rescinding prior approvals. Lawmakers backed up the vote with a 1979 tribal resolution that bans energy resource exploration on the reservation.

“They felt very uncomfortable with what the project entailed, liability, possible question marks as to what the impact would be to the tribe,” said Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa.

Proponents of the project said resource development wasn’t proposed. Rather, the project sought to drill one well on tribal land to explore the geologic rock formations and deep saline aquifers to determine whether carbon storage was possible. Anything beyond the drilling would have required further approval from the Tribal Council, said Joelynn Roberson, a project manager for the council’s water and energy team.

“We thought it was really positive if we could move this project forward,” she said. “It was just unfortunate that we couldn’t.”

The tribe had secured a $5.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project and was working with a group of researchers with the West Coast Carbon Regional Sequestration Partnership, or WESTCARB, Roberson said. The partnership, led by the California Energy Commission, is one of seven across the country created to look at opportunities to keep carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere because it traps heat.

WESTCARB eyed the Colorado Plateau as a potential carbon storage site because of its rock formations that have few faults and the area’s coal-fired power plants, said Rich Myhre, outreach coordinator for WESTCARB.

The power plants are among the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions, and future climate legislation could force the regulation of such discharges. Four coal-burning plants lie in northeast Arizona – one that is fed by coal mined from the Hopi and Navajo reservations – and generate about 40 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

WESTCARB had drilled a 3,800-foot exploratory well adjacent to the Cholla Power Plant near Holbrook. That test revealed the rocks were thick enough to trap carbon dioxide and the water salty enough not to interfere with drinking water, but the pore space was insufficient, Myhre said.

WESTCARB then looked toward Hopi land and proposed drilling a well 7,000 feet beneath the Black Mesa Basin to test the geology and sample the fluids underground. If the ground was found unsuitable for carbon storage, no further work would be done and the well could have been used to access drinking water or for livestock, Roberson said.

If the geology was confirmed, the potential for carbon storage could further the use of the tribe’s coal resources, she said.

Hopi lawmaker Leroy Sumatzkuku said he was concerned about the lack of federal regulations and policies regarding carbon capture and storage. Large-scale carbon sequestration has not been tested in the United States.

He also said the tribe also had not developed its own energy policy.

“I made a choice not to subject our people to an experimental project on our own lands,” Sumatzkuku said in a statement. “We have to take a stand in protecting our valuable natural resources.”

Myhre said the group has not identified any other sites for possible testing in Arizona and respects the decision of the Hopis.