It’s mid-June and Don Schreiber is holding court behind the wheel of his ranch truck as he pilots it along a county road west of Farmington, New Mexico. Schreiber is a talker, but comes up short of words as he tries to describe the grandeur and beauty of the place we’re headed, a sort of plateau from which one can see the ominous form of Tsé Bit’a’í, or Shiprock, the backside of Mesa Verde, and the Carrizo Mountains. “It’s like … kinda like a cathedral,” he says.

Then we’re all left speechless as we come over a rise and our vision is filled up with the hulking rectangular shape of the San Juan Generating Station and its four smokestacks. Schreiber steers onto a gravel road in front of the coal-burning power plant and heads westward, climbing up and through one of the sandstone ridges that makes up the Hogback, a geological formation that marks the boundary of the San Juan Basin. From up here it does, indeed, feel like a sacred place, albeit one despoiled by pumpjacks, well pads, rusty pipes, pvc tubing, and other industrial detritus.

“It’s like someone went into a church and vandalized it,” Schreiber says, finding the words easily—and emphatically—this time.

Schreiber, along with Robyn Jackson, interim Executive Director of Diné CARE, and David Fosdeck, a Farmington solar advocate, ditch rider, and surveyor, are taking me on a tour of the Horseshoe Gallup oil and gas field in the northwest corner of New Mexico. The aging field epitomizes one of the vexing problems facing advocates and regulators: How to tap federal funds for abandoned and orphaned well cleanups when the wells in question are in a state of limbo Schreiber calls the “orphaned/non-orphaned well syndrome.” That is, the wells are defunct and their operators bankrupt—but regulators still consider the facilities to be active, going concerns, indefinitely delaying cleanup.

Schreiber stops the truck and we climb out to inspect an iron post indicating where a well had long ago been plugged and abandoned as it should have been. Schreiber’s a wiry guy, his mustachioed face shaded by a white cowboy hat. The silver buckle on the belt holding up his Wranglers is inlaid with turquoise-like stones that spell “Schreiber Insurance,” the name of the business he ran in Farmington for years. In the late 1990s he retired and he and his wife Jane bought the Devils Spring Ranch east of Farmington where they intended to run a holistic, sustainable ranching operation.

Photo by:
USFS Gila National Forest

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