The New Mexico co-op breaking up with fossil fuels

A product of the New Deal, Kit Carson was founded in 1944 to bring electricity to rural northern New Mexico. Today, there are 832 rural distribution co-ops nationwide.

In general, rural co-ops rely more on coal and have moved more slowly toward decarbonization than large investor-owned utilities. But that’s changing, with Kit Carson leading the charge. Co-op members worried about climate change are leveraging the distinctly democratic governing structures of rural distribution co-ops to encourage decarbonization. Robin Lunt, chief commercial officer at Guzman Energy, Kit Carson’s current energy supplier, called co-ops “a great bellwether” for shifting public opinion.

“They’re much closer to their communities,” she said, “and to their customers, because their customers are their owners.”

But democracy is messy, and change can take years. Lunt praised Reyes’ patience and persistence at Kit Carson, while Reyes credits the committed, vocal co-op members who pushed it to be “good stewards … of the land and water.” Still, the job is far from done, as the co-op continues its struggle to phase out fossil fuels entirely.

Luis Reyes Jr., CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative.

REYES WAS RAISED IN TAOS, in a home powered by Kit Carson. He was with his mother one day when she paid her bill at the co-op office. A manager offered Reyes a job, which he took after graduating from New Mexico State in 1984 with a degree in electrical engineering. A decade later, he became CEO. 

The early 2000s found the co-op trying to expand its offerings in rural areas and launch internet services. Tri-State was also trying to grow, and, in 2006, it announced plans to build a large coal plant in Kansas. It also wanted Kit Carson to extend its contract until 2050, adding another decade. It was around this time, Reyes said, that some members started asking “some pretty tough questions,” wondering why the co-op wasn’t investing more in renewables and whether it should extend its Tri-State contract.

Bobby Ortega, a retired community banker who was elected to the board in 2005, said that some board members, himself included, were hesitant to move away from fossil fuels. “When I got on this board, I was more leaning towards coal,” he said. “We were all raised on that kind of mentality (about) how our energy would be derived.”

Kit Carson’s long struggle paved the way for other co-ops to leave Tri-State. “That (trend) literally wouldn’t have happened, because nobody else would have had the guts to do it.”

Most of the board members had open minds, though, Ortega said, and Kit Carson refused to consent to an extension of the contract. The co-op wanted to end its relationship with Tri-State. But legally, the contract was still in force, and Kit Carson needed to find another energy provider before it could leave Tri-State.

In the following years, the co-op convened a committee of its members to discuss increasing solar energy usage. Tri-State, however, had set a 5% cap on locally generated electricity. In 2012, a group of Taoseños who shared an interest in renewable energy formed a nonprofit, Renewable Taos, and set a goal of 100% renewable energy for the area — a goal that was blocked by the Tri-State cap.

Renewable Taos reached out to Reyes to discuss the issue. As a co-op, Kit Carson needed buy-in across its service area — Taos and the Taos and Picuris pueblos, along with parts of Colfax and Rio Arriba counties — in order to make large-scale changes. But the co-op’s membership was hardly a monolith. “You had the liberals,” Reyes recalled, and the Renewable Taos members worried about climate change. But there had been an influx of “very wealthy but very conservative folks” in the Angel Fire ski area, and some of them were actively skeptical of renewables. Other Kit Carson members, notably those without much disposable income, feared that renewables would increase their monthly expenses.

Renewable Taos began attending Kit Carson’s board meetings with a new goal in mind: moving the entire service area to 100% renewable energy if the Tri-State contract was broken. “We didn’t align at all,” Reyes recalled. The board thought Renewable Taos, some of whose members were well-to-do retired scientists, were “kind of telling us dummies what to do,” he said, with a chuckle.

But Reyes and the board found a way to address that tension. “At the end of our first meeting (with Renewable Taos), I suggested to the board, well, if these guys are really going to help us and be critical, let’s give ’em some homework,” he said. The board asked Renewable Taos to visit every municipality Kit Carson served to build support for a joint resolution declaring that all co-op members were committed to fighting climate change.

Jay Levine, one of the original Renewable Taos members, still wonders if that was an attempt to put them off politely. Even so, the group accepted Reyes’ challenge, visiting every municipality in Kit Carson’s service area and answering questions about renewables and energy costs. “We talked to a lot of folks, and I think everywhere we went, they signed on,” he said. The process was aided by the falling cost of solar energy, which began reaching price parity with coal in the mid-2010s.

By 2014, every community in Kit Carson’s service area had signed on to Renewable Taos’ clean energy resolution. Two years later, after the co-op board finally found an alternate energy supplier, it broke its Tri-State contract for $37 million. Thanks to increased control over its power sources, Kit Carson reached an important goal in 2022: Renewable energy now provides 100% of the year-round daytime electrical needs of its more than 30,000 members. 

Now, other co-ops, notably Delta-Montrose in western Colorado, are following Kit Carson’s lead and leaving Tri-State in the name of clean energy.

Levine, the Renewable Taos member, said that Kit Carson’s long struggle paved the way for other co-ops to leave Tri-State. “That (trend) literally wouldn’t have happened,” he said, “because nobody else would have had the guts to do it.”

The New Mexico co-op breaking up with fossil fuels
Kit Carson’s largest solar array, near Taos, New Mexico. Renewable energy now provides 100% of the year-round daytime electrical needs of the energy co-op’s more than 30,000 members.

THE CO-OP’S ACHIEVEMENT — hitting the 100% daytime clean energy milestone — is clearly significant, but it also needs to meet a New Mexico mandate that rural co-ops transition entirely to carbon-neutral electricity by 2050. One potential pathway involves a green hydrogen plant that the co-op has explored with the National Renewable Energy Lab, other government partners and the small village of Questa.

Conventional hydrogen production, which uses fossil fuels, contributes to climate change, but so-called green hydrogen can be produced by splitting water atoms with an electrolyzer powered by renewable energy. Proponents think widespread green hydrogen could reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 16% by mid-century. Despite all the investment and hype, however, few green hydrogen projects have broken ground. Still, Kit Carson has beaten the odds before; Reyes recalled that many people doubted that the co-op would ever reach its goal of meeting daytime energy needs with 100% renewables.

Kit Carson reached an important goal in 2022: Renewable energy now provides 100% of the year-round daytime electrical needs of its more than 30,000 members. 

The Questa plant would be built at a shuttered molybdenum mine, which operated from the 1920s until 2014 and was a major source of both jobs and pollution. In 2005, a Chevron subsidiary, Chevron Mining, acquired Unocal, the mine’s parent company. Today, Chevron manages the remediation of what is now a Superfund site.

Energy users in the Taos area.

At a series of local meetings, water was the top concern for Kit Carson members. A variety of sources could be used to power the proposed plant, including water that Chevron is already pulling from the underground mine, treating, and sending to the Red River as part of its Superfund mitigation. Reyes is optimistic about the hydrogen project, describing it as the next phase of Kit Carson’s clean energy journey. But he noted that the future of the project, and of the co-op as a whole, ultimately lies in the hands of the co-op’s members. “They have been part of that equation the whole time,” he said.   

Mary Catherine O’Connor is an award-winning reporter whose beats include climate change, energy, waste and recreation. Her work has appeared in Outside, The Guardian and NPR. She helps produce The Big Switch podcast.

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Speaking out

Per Asper Ad Astra – Rural Southwest Is Slowly Becoming a Destination for Commercial Spacetravel

 On the morning of August 10th, 2023, residents of Elephant Butte, New Mexico (population 1,427), stood in their yards, eyes trained on the sky. They were rewarded with the sights—and sounds—of a spaceplane being launched into sub-orbital space.

“We could hear the rocket ignite—it was right overhead—and you could see the contrail, at first going horizontally and then straight up in the air,” said Kim Skinner, mayor pro tempore of Elephant Butte, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

The launch was Virgin Galactic’s second commercial flight, known as ‘Galactic 02’, which carried three private passengers as well as the flight crew 55 miles above the earth to the boundaries of space.

Visitors pose for photos outside of Spaceport America. More than 2,500 visitors toured Spaceport America last year. (Photo by Anya Petrone Slepyan)

Galactic 02 launched from Spaceport America, “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport” according to its website. Located on 18,000 acres of land adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, the Spaceport is 26 miles from the city of Truth or Consequences (population 6,062), the county seat of Sierra County, and around 25 miles from Elephant Butte.

Low population density is one of the prerequisites for a usable, operational launch site, according to Charles Hurley, the public information officer for Spaceport America. Jeff Bezos’ space tourism company Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX also have launch sites at similarly remote locations.

Following the success of two flights in the summer of 2023, Virgin Galactic announced a schedule of regular monthly commercial spaceflights launching from Spaceport America.

For residents of Sierra County, this announcement fulfills a promise decades in the making, said Bruce Swingle, former city manager of Truth or Consequences, and former county manager for Sierra County.

“I think [the launch] was really a turning point for the community,” Swingle told the Daily Yonder.

The New Mexico state legislature began contemplating plans for a commercial spaceport in the 1980s, though the proposal was not funded until 2005. The $212 million project was paid for primarily by the taxpayers of Sierra County, where the Spaceport is located, and neighboring Doña Ana County. Both counties continue to pay a gross receipts tax to fund the Spaceport, a quarter of which is dedicated to local science, technology, engineering, and math education.

At its core, the Spaceport was “designed to spur economic development,” said Spaceport America Executive Director Scott McLaughlin in a press release.

A new report by the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University shows that the project has been effective. In 2022, Spaceport America generated nearly $63 million of economic impact in Sierra County, and over $58 million in Doña Ana County. This includes the creation of hundreds of jobs, construction at the spaceport, and tourism.

Last year, over 2,500 visitors toured the Spaceport through Final Frontier Tours, the official tour operator and merchandiser for the Spaceport. The annual Spaceport America Cup, which is an international rocket-building competition for college students, also brings thousands of visitors each year, according to Hurley. And as Virgin Galactic gears up its operations, a steady stream of space tourists and their entourages are expected to flock to New Mexico.

A tour group looks out at the Spaceport grounds. The FAA-licensed launch complex sits on 18,000 acres of land. (Photo by Anya Petrone Slepyan)

“We’re receiving much more money in return than what we’re paying in gross receipts tax to the Spaceport,” said Swingle. “And in the long term, the Spaceport will continue to grow. I think that what we’re at the Spaceport today is negligible compared to what it’s going to look like in the foreseeable future.”

Much-Needed Economic Boost

This growing source of economic development is welcome in Sierra County, which is one of the poorest in New Mexico. Over a quarter of its residents are living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau.

And while Virgin Galactic reaches for the stars, Sierra County struggles to provide critical services on the ground. Truth or Consequences, the largest city in the county, has had to temporarily shut down schools and businesses on multiple occasions due to a failing water system that leaks over 40% of the desert town’s potable water into the ground.

For the past decade, tickets for a Virgin Galactic spaceflight cost between $200,000-250,000. Now, tickets go for $450,000 apiece. Space tourists in search of a luxury experience in Sierra County can stay at the Armendaris Ranch, owned by media mogul Ted Turner, for $3500 a night, before taxes and fees.

The irony of this is not lost on Kim Skinner, mayor pro tempore of Elephant Butte. “We have all sorts of things going in Sierra County, from water pipes so broken that you lose 43% of the water pumped, to high-end places like the Armenadaris where you can stay for nearly $4,000 a night,” she said. “It’s from one extreme to the other.”

Though there is also a range of less exclusive options in Truth or Consequences, many tourists end up opting for Las Cruces’ Encanto Hotel, which partners with the Spaceport.

According to the economic impact study, the Spaceport generated over 9,000 visitor-days (days visitors spent in the area) in 2022. But 75% of those visitor-days were spent in Doña Ana County, which is home to Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city.

“Tourists want to go where the money is, and that’s Las Cruces,” said Susan Curry, the office manager for the Sierra County Chamber of Commerce.

Skinner is also the chairperson of the Sierra County Government Recreation and Tourism Board. She said that Sierra County may not be the right destination for everyone, but that they still hope to attract more Spaceport visitors who are interested in the abundant natural resources the county has to offer. And a nearly 20% increase in the county’s annual lodgers tax revenue shows that the strategy is working.

“We don’t have all the shopping; we don’t have all the bells and whistles,” Skinner said. “But if you’re a person who would really like to hike or bike, or RV up in the mountains, this is the place for you.”

Building for the Future

Although Sierra County businesses hope to continue to grow local tourism, other types of economic development stemming from the Spaceport have proven even more fruitful, according to former Sierra County manager Bruce Swingle.

He cites unprecedented private investment in the community, and new public-private partnerships designed to address local problems, from a housing shortage to poor internet connectivity.

“We are catching up with the rest of the world with our infrastructure, our broadband, our utilities, our roads,” Swingle said. “And it’s not just growth, it’s smart growth.”

Swingle hopes these improvements will help the community attract a new generation of professionals, from aerospace workers to hospital staff.

Attracting young people is critical to the future of the community, Skinner said.

“One of the things we’re concerned about is that our kids grow up, go to college, and move away because there are no jobs to keep them here. And you see that in rural communities all over the country,” she said. “So we’re really blessed to have the Spaceport here, doing what it’s trying to do.”

According to Hurley, the Spaceport is just one element of New Mexico’s developing “Space Valley,” stretching from the research complex at Los Alamos down to the aerospace department at the University of Texas at El Paso.  Other important space-related sites include Sandia National Laboratories, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, White Sands Missile Range, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

As New Mexico grows its space-centered economy, Bruce Swingle is adamant that Sierra County will continue to benefit.

“It’s amazing to see the synergy that is going into our community right now,” Swingle said. “And Spaceport is a part of that, Virgin Galactic and private investment are a part of that. It’s just a really good time to be in Sierra County and watch this happen.”

The post Per Asper Ad Astra – Rural Southwest Is Slowly Becoming a Destination for Commercial Spacetravel appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

The long tail of toxic emissions on the Navajo Nation

Driving to another site in Counselor Chapter, a small community in the eastern reaches of the Navajo Nation where the political chapters are outside the reservation boundaries, she described the different types of equipment — flare stacks, storage tanks, gas compressors — from which she commonly sees emissions. Pinto said that most air emissions seem to come from operators intentionally flaring or venting excess gases that build up in the equipment, rather than unintentional emissions, such as from aging underground pipes. She and her colleagues refrain from calling any emissions “leaks,” though: While these systems were designed to emit gas, usually as a safety mechanism, the vapor trails she films are often caused by malfunctioning equipment.

“If people were to be exposed to this air, they were also at risk of other non-cancer health outcomes, including respiratory, neurological and developmental effects.”

“These little flares should be lit and combusting all the hydrocarbons, but when you put the camera on (a lit flare), a portion of those hydrocarbons are still venting out into the atmosphere and along this horizon,” she said. “And that’s worrisome, because the air has no boundaries.”

The snow had ceased when Pinto trained the boxy, camcorder-
like device on another well site. To the naked eye, the row of 20-foot-tall storage tanks did not appear to be emitting anything unnatural. Using the camera, though, she toggled between monochrome and technicolor image modes, revealing a plume of hydrocarbons rising from an unlit flare stack near the tanks.

Across the region, wells suck crude oil and natural gas from shale formations thousands of feet below the surface. Some of the gas escapes, despite regulations to limit “venting and flaring” by operators. (Flaring is supposed to burn off the escaping methane, converting it to carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas.) At every juncture — from the wells extracting the hydrocarbons to the storage tanks, compressors and pipelines that convey the material — the system is rife with holes.

A sign along Highway 550, east of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, near Lybrook Elementary School, alerts people to the presence of methane from the extensive network of fracking installations in the area.

Hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of oil and gas wells that smells like rotten eggs, is a frequent odor in oilfields. Even at very low concentrations, the toxic gas can sting the nostrils and cause nausea, dizziness, bloody nose and other acute symptoms. Inhaling extremely high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in an enclosed space can kill a human almost immediately. The hydrocarbon soup that comes up from the shale also contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, which has been shown to increase the risk of blood cancers and pregnancy complications.

A Harvard-led study of millions of people ages 65 and older showed that those living near fracking operations had a higher early mortality risk.

“If people were to be exposed to this air, they were also at risk of other non-cancer health outcomes, including respiratory, neurological and developmental effects,” said Lisa McKenzie, an associate professor with the Colorado School of Public Health who has studied the health impacts of oil and gas production.

The off-gassing benzene is one of the many air toxics that can escape from oil and gas infrastructure. Along with other VOCs like xylene and formaldehyde, the emissions contribute to air pollution in the form of ozone, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. A 2022 study in Pennsylvania showed that children born within two kilometers (about 1.25 miles) of a fracking site were two to three times more likely to develop leukemia. In Colorado, McKenzie led studies showing that children with the blood cancer, as well as congenital heart defects, are more likely to live near oil and gas sites. Older people are also at risk: A Harvard-led study of millions of people ages 65 and older showed that those living near fracking operations — particularly downwind — had a higher early mortality risk compared to elderly people living in areas without wells.

In the mesa-lined valleys that surround Counselor, some wells pump petroleum within a few hundred feet of homes and traditional hogans; one well site lies less than 2,000 feet from a local school. The rural community’s exposure to VOCs and other air toxics has led to mounting concern among some residents about the potential health problems caused by the emissions.

Kendra Pinto (Diné) a local resident who lives near fracking installations in the Lybrook area east of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, stands in front of a decommissioned well that has not had tanks and pipes removed and still poses a hazard to the community (right).

PINTO, who captures footage at oil and gas sites in the area regularly, said she often has a headache “by mid-afternoon” in the field, and has also experienced eye and respiratory irritation that she attributes to exposure.

Given the enormous scale of the extraction activities and resulting air pollution in the Permian Basin — which straddles the New Mexico–Texas border — Pinto said the air-quality problems in her community are often overshadowed. “The problem for folks in this area is that the Permian will get a lot more attention than the San Juan Basin,” she said, noting that cleaning up the industry in the Four Corners region would likely prove more beneficial to human health. An Earthworks analysis shows that in the San Juan Basin, nearly 80% of the population lives within a half-mile of active oil and gas operations.

Another area drawing more media coverage and political attention lies closer to Counselor Chapter: In recent years, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s plan to halt federal oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park has led to division among the area’s predominantly Navajo communities. The 10-mile buffer zone, which went into effect in June, encompasses all public lands surrounding the thousand-year-old Pueblo complex. The action drew the ire of pro-fracking residents, and was eventually opposed by the Navajo Nation Council and President Buu Nygren.

Many of those who opposed the leasing stoppage are from families who benefit from wells drilled on “Indian allotments,” tracts that the federal government allocated to Navajo households, who could then lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies and receive royalty payments that are split between the original allottees’ heirs. Under the signed order, Navajo allottees are not prohibited from leasing their mineral rights, but many argue that the buffer zone will make their land less desirable for development. Delora Hesuse, an outspoken allottee from Nageezi Chapter, said that Navajo communities should be free to benefit from the area’s mineral resources, despite the potential exposure to pollutants.

“We do our homework,” Hesuse said. “Those issues have already been spoken about within the families.”

Pinto said she doesn’t relish filming in communities that tend to support oil-and-gas extraction. People have lashed out publicly against her and others who voice concern about the industry’s impact on the environment and community members. Disputes over mineral interests have, in some cases, led to physical violence.

“We absolutely know that malfunctions are not reported, that excess emissions are not reported and that there is noncompliance with regulations on a systematic, widespread basis.”

After documenting the malfunctioning flare, she logged details about the well, which is operated by Enduring Resources. Some of the footage she’s collected for Earthworks has been packaged as part of complaints the organization has filed with the New Mexico Environment Department.

A MAP OF the area reveals a complicated patchwork of land ownership, including federal, state, private and trust lands. Of the more than 21,000 active wells in the San Juan Basin, the majority were leased and permitted on public lands by the Bureau of Land Management. Oil and gas operators in the state are regulated by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD), which, under the state’s 2021 Methane Waste Rule, is tasked with limiting the amount of natural gas that is wasted by the industry. In theory, that rule prohibits most routine venting and flaring. However, the law includes nearly a dozen exceptions that allow venting and flaring during “an emergency or malfunction,” as well as during scheduled maintenance or the “normal operation of a storage tank.”

Companies self-report their estimated emissions to the division, and are compelled to report any major flaring incidents, as in August of 2022, when more than 107 million cubic feet of gas were flared from a cluster of wells operated by DJR Energy near the community of Nageezi. And while substantial emissions are reported by companies, industry critics say those volumes are likely dwarfed by unreported and so-called fugitive emissions.

An infared video still by Earthworks shows gas emitting from a site in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico.
Courtesy of Earthwork

NMOCD director Dylan Fuge said equipment such as storage tanks may release gas “as a safety measure so the tanks don’t explode,” or for various other reasons during extraction, storage and transportation. Last year, operators in the northern part of the state reported venting of more than 197 million cubic feet. Fuge emphasized that operators are allowed to vent and flare under exceptions in state regulations, though he acknowledged the likelihood that “there are some” unreported emissions on the division’s watch.

Based on aerial footage, Liz Kuehn, Air Quality Bureau chief with the state Environment Department, is confident that unreported emissions are occurring in the basin. “We absolutely know that malfunctions are not reported, that excess emissions are not reported and that there is noncompliance with regulations on a systematic, widespread basis,” Kuehn told High Country News.

A new rule to limit the emission of “ozone precursors” from specific equipment should help curb VOC releases in the coming years, Kuehn added. Under the Oil Conservation Division’s new Methane Waste Rule, operators will be required to capture 98% of the methane they release by 2026. But environmental organizations say the agencies are letting the industry run roughshod over regulations intended to curb emissions. Earthworks has submitted more than 100 complaint videos to state Environment Department in the past five years, many of which were rejected based on technicalities, Pinto said. 

To address some of the organization’s complaints, the agency adopted a system of notifying operators and the public about alleged violations, Kuehn said. The department has undertaken at least four major enforcement actions against operators in the basin over the past five years, while NMOCD has assessed no penalties against operators for venting and flaring in the basin since 2020. The NMOCD currently employs five inspectors in the basin, and the Environment Department has five inspectors statewide.

“It is frustrating that as much as (the agencies) bemoan a lack of resources, a lack of staffing, and an inability to enforce all the time everywhere, that they’re not taking small actions that could make things better in the meantime,” said Jeremy Nichols, who until August was the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The industry needs to be given the message that this behavior, these releases, they won’t be tolerated anymore.”

“You can already smell it when you approach that stop; it gets stronger and stronger until we get right by the tank. It could just give you a headache right there.”

The Navajo Nation EPA currently monitors air quality at two sites in New Mexico and Arizona, neither in the Counselor area, environment program supervisor Glenna Lee said, adding that the agency’s air-monitoring capacity is constrained by the limited grant funding it receives from the U.S. EPA. After requests for an interview, an agency spokesperson said in a statement, “EPA will continue to investigate matters that concern air quality in at-risk communities and we will work with our state partners to ensure public health concerns are addressed adequately.”

In recent years, the BLM has paused leasing throughout its Farmington Field Office area. A draft management plan for the region proposed in 2020 could allow for new drilling in the area. As of this year, that plan is still pending further review. Field manager Maureen Joe declined to address whether additional acreage may be opened in the future.

ON AUTUMN MORNINGS, school buses bounce along the rutted roads linking the rural communities, while children gather at makeshift bus stops in the morning chill. In 2022, a well near one of the stops gave off noxious odors that students had to endure for months, said Harry Domingo, who has driven routes in the area’s predominantly Diné communities for many years. 

“You can already smell it when you approach that stop; it gets stronger and stronger until we get right by the tank,” he said. “It could just give you a headache right there.” On other stretches of road, the odors coming from oil-and-gas infrastructure cause students riding the bus to hold their nose and say “Eww,” he recalled.

Domingo is also the vice president of Counselor Chapter. In the past, he has shuttled K-8 students to Lybrook School, a sandstone-colored building overlooking Highway 550. The school used to be located several miles up the road, but was relocated after residents voiced health and safety concerns over a gas-processing plant across the street. In 2005, the school was reconstructed at its present location. A decade later, a drilling rig appeared across the street.

Gas infrastructure near Counselor Chapter’s Lybrook Elementary School.

Five wells, now operated by Enduring Resources, were completed in 2015, at the tail end of a fracking boom in which hundreds of oil and gas wells were drilled in the region. The company reported venting at least 48,000 cubic feet of uncombusted gases across from the school in August 2022.

Near a shallow pass in the sandstone ridgeline, a few miles from Lybrook School, Marlene Thomas was cooking at home in the late afternoon. Outside her house, several dogs left tracks in the shallow snow that borders the driveway, which passes within 100 yards of an active well. For three decades, she worked as a community health representative for the Navajo Nation, a role that involved visiting homes throughout the area and consulting residents about their health. Now retired, Thomas said she suspects that the rash of oil and gas activity in the area has caused health problems in the community.

She was on a committee that conducted a community-driven Health Impact Assessment. Starting in 2016, the committee began speaking with residents who described experiencing sore throats, sinus problems, headaches and other symptoms often attributed to increased air pollution. In 2018, the committee conducted air monitoring that showed elevated levels of particulate matter and formaldehyde, and the presence of other VOCs.

Since Thomas retired, she’s continued to hear from community members about the perceived effects of the ongoing air quality issues. She spoke with one woman who said she’d noticed an increase in stillbirths in recent years. Talking about an elder who has since died from a “respiratory illness,” Thomas said the woman noted that her coughing and throat irritation worsened when she would herd her sheep near a particular well site. “She noticed a difference between when she was near” the facility and when she took her sheep in a different direction, which the woman said made her “feel a lot better,” Thomas recounted.

Fracked oil is pumped to the Huerfano Station, just north of Huerfano Mountain in northern New Mexico. These lands are home to Navajo, Pueblo, Jicarilla Apache and other Indigenous peoples.

Sitting in his office a few miles away, former Chapter President Samuel Sage said he often smells the gas that collects in certain valleys. Sage, who has provided written testimony to Congress on the issue, said officials with the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs never discussed the dangers posed by fracking during oil-leasing negotiations with allotment owners. “The first thing that was mentioned was, ‘If you sign this, you will get this much money,’ and of course, there was no hesitation,” he said.

While oil tankers tear up the dirt roads that branch off the highway, Sage said the industry’s presence has frayed the fabric of the community, pitting locals who support oil and gas development against those who are opposed to the industry encroaching on the landscape. Undeterred by the controversy, Pinto plans to continue putting pressure on regulators and the industry by documenting emissions and raising awareness of their potential health impacts. 

“It’s not good for us, it’s not good for wildlife, it’s not good for plants,” Pinto said. “Are people getting paid enough to bear all these negative impacts — is it worth it?”

Mark Armao (Diné) hails from the high desert in northern Arizona. Now based in California, his recent reporting has focused on environmental issues facing Indigenous communities.

The Forgotten Victims Downwind of Oppenheimer’s Bomb

Sober living fraud scheme targeted Montana tribal citizens

When Autumn Nelson decided she was ready to seek treatment for her alcoholism, she knew she had to act fast.

“When someone with an addiction says, ‘I need help,’ we’re begging,” she said. “We want it.”

Nelson, who lives on the Blackfeet Reservation, knew she might have to leave home to get the help she needed. Crystal Creek Lodge provides inpatient and outpatient treatment on the reservation, but community members say the place is almost always at capacity. Journey to Recovery, another facility on the reservation, provides outpatient services primarily focused on supporting individuals after they return from inpatient treatment. And sometimes, it can be helpful for people struggling with addiction to leave their environment and disconnect from people in their circles who may be using.

So when Journey to Recovery gave Nelson the contact information for a treatment center in Arizona, Nelson was hopeful. She was ready to get clean. Little did she know she’d soon be caught up in a national scandal.

Phoenix House Recovery, a treatment center in Arizona, paid for Nelson’s plane ticket to Arizona, and Nelson was eager for a fresh start. Her father died of cancer three years ago, and just before his death, her younger brother died in a car accident.

“That really set my alcoholism off,” she said. “I kind of just stepped out of reality for a while.”

But Phoenix House Recovery wasn’t what Nelson had imagined. She has a background in health care and had been to other treatment centers in the past, and as time went on, she grew suspicious about how the facility was run.

“I started asking questions,” Nelson said. “Like, ‘Where’s the 12-step plan? Why isn’t that in our daily agenda? Why aren’t we learning about triggers, external and internal? Where is our life skills training? Why aren’t we building resumés? Why is there one therapist for 30 patients?’ I asked the clients and staff, and they kicked me out the next day.”

Out on the streets in 100-plus degree weather, Nelson had to find somewhere to go. She looked into other sober living homes but grew concerned when she was offered alcohol and drugs at one of them. She didn’t know who she could trust.

“I was scared,” she said. “I’m thousands of miles away from my family and my home. I was freaking out. I was hysterical.”

While Nelson ultimately made it home to the Blackfeet Reservation, her experience in Arizona is not uncommon.

What happened to her has happened to thousands of other Native Americans in Arizona amid a widespread Medicaid fraud scheme, where treatment centers billed the state thousands of dollars per patient for services that were not actually provided. Indigenous people from Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota were recruited to get treatment at these fraudulent facilities, and experts estimate that at least 100 Native Americans from Montana are tangled in the scam.

The scheme defrauded Arizona taxpayers, and at these fraudulent sober living homes, some clients were given drugs and alcohol. Others were told to get on food stamps. And some people seeking treatment were paid to recruit more Native Americans to these facilities. As the fraudulent treatment centers have shuttered amid a government crackdown, Montana tribes and grassroots advocates are scrambling to get their relatives home. But because these facilities changed clients’ state of residency to Arizona for billing purposes, it’s even harder for tribes and families in Montana to locate their loved ones.

What exactly is happening in Arizona?

Arizona officials have called it “a stunning failure of government.”

In a widespread scam, treatment facilities in Arizona billed for nonexistent services, and the money was paid through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Arizona’s Medicaid program. The scam targeted Native Americans because a loophole in AHCCCS’s American Indian Health Program allowed individuals to pose as a treatment facility.

Reva Stewart, who launched the campaign #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits to raise awareness of the fraud, said experts have traced the origins of the scam to the pandemic.

“They targeted Native Americans because the American Indian Health Plan would pay for everything they documented,” she explained. “Once these places found out they could get something like $1,700 per day per person, you saw them popping up everywhere. With that money, one home can make $2 million in two weeks. I even saw a YouTube video on how to open a sober living home in 15 minutes.”

The Arizona Mirror reported that AHCCCS was billed $53.5 million under the outpatient behavioral health clinic code in 2019. In 2020, it more than doubled to $132.6 million, and by 2022 it exploded to $668 million.

The FBI, which is investigating the fraud, is seeking to contact victims of the scam. The agency said in some cases, organizers pick up addicts at popular gathering places; sometimes individuals are given alcohol during transport; and clients are told to obtain food stamps during their time in treatment even though their enrollment brings funding to the home. The FBI investigation has resulted in at least 45 indictments by the office of the Arizona Attorney General, and at least $75 million has been seized.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs in May announced, according to The Associated Press, that the homes defrauded the state of hundreds of millions of dollars. AHCCCS has since suspended payments to hundreds of providers in the state.

As these homes have closed, Native American residents are left on the streets of Arizona in temperatures nearing 115 degrees. Some people have been reported missing, and others have turned up dead.

‘I blame them’

Mona Bear Medicine, Blackfeet, said when her 25-year-old son RayDel Calf Looking went to Phoenix for treatment, she had high hopes for him.

Calf Looking completed a longer treatment program, lasting 60 or 90 days, and Bear Medicine said he was doing well. There are many highly regarded treatment facilities in Arizona that have effective programs and competent staff, and plenty of Montana tribal members speak highly of them.

“He sent a selfie over Christmas, and he looked really healthy,” Bear Medicine said of her son. “He looked good. And I could tell he was doing good for himself.”

Bear Medicine said her son started drinking in high school, but she didn’t realize he was doing drugs until about five years ago. Calf Looking was gay, and Bear Medicine said he struggled to come out and faced adversity when people he loved didn’t accept him.

“I think that was the reason he got into drugs,” she said. “He didn’t know how to come out. He was teased for it, and it hurt him. He started doing different drugs, and it got worse and worse, and he got into meth. It was hard for me to realize the extent of it, and I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be on my family.”

Calf Looking completed the long-term program, and then went to a sober-living home in Arizona, called Calm Integrated Healthcare. Bear Medicine said, “That’s when the problems started.”

In February, Bear Medicine hadn’t heard from her son in a while, and she was worried. She and her sister flew down to Arizona and found Calf Looking, who had walked out of the home and appeared to be intoxicated.

“He was disappointed in himself for relapsing,” Bear Medicine recalled.

Bear Medicine took her son back to Calm Integrated Healthcare and almost immediately got a bad feeling about the place. She said her son was clearly intoxicated, and the staff at Calm Integrated said it was fine for him to stay with Bear Medicine at her motel for a few days.

“It was so shady,” Bear Medicine said. “When she said RayDel could stay with us, I asked, ‘What does he need to do? Does he need to go to class?’ And she just said, ‘No, he doesn’t need to do anything.’ When I drove away, I said to RayDel, ‘I’m so confused. I thought sober living was sober.’ And he said, ‘They don’t care as long as they get your money.’”

When Calf Looking stayed with Bear Medicine at the motel, he kept drinking, and after Bear Medicine left, she knew he was still drinking, even though he’d returned to the sober-living home.

In late March, Calf Looking’s cousin, Vandree Old Person, was found dead on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Calf Looking, who was supposed to fly home to be a pallbearer, was taking the death hard. Again, Bear Medicine didn’t hear from him, and again, she was worried.

One day in April, Bear Medicine got a call from a detective.

“When she called, I thought, ‘What did he do now?’” Bear Medicine recalled. “I said, ‘Is he in jail? Is he hurt?’ And she said, ‘No.’ Then she asked me, ‘Is anyone with you?’ and that’s when it started clicking. I said, ‘Oh my God. Is he dead?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”

The detective told Bear Medicine that her son broke into a house while intoxicated and the homeowner, fearing for his life, shot Calf Looking as he walked up the stairs of his home. Bear Medicine said her son was shot in the back, which she finds incongruous with the detective’s recounting. And she still hasn’t received an autopsy. She was told the FBI is investigating her son’s case, but months later, she still hasn’t heard from the federal agency.

Calm Integrated Healthcare has told Bear Medicine that her son walked out of their facility and was not under their care at the time he was killed, but Bear Medicine maintains that the sober-living home had a part in his death.

“I do think the center was responsible for his death,” she said. “They took the money but still let him drink. He was really trying. He really did try, but it was so easy for him to have a free place to stay that allowed him to drink. I blame them. I really blame them.”

AHCCCS payments to Calm Integrated Healthcare were suspended on May 15 — about a month after Calf Looking was killed.

‘It’s systemic’

Just as with Autumn Nelson, Journey to Recovery in Browning connected Josh Racine to a treatment center in Arizona. A spokesperson for Journey to Recovery was not available for comment.

Racine, Blackfeet, flew out to Sunrise Native Recovery, an alcohol and drug treatment center in Scottsdale, in March. About a month later, he was on the streets.

Laura McGee, Racine’s sister, didn’t know where he was or what happened, but she was determined to find him. She called Sunrise Native Recovery, but they were no help. She called the hospitals in the area, but no luck there, either. Racine would occasionally ask her to send him food at the treatment center — something McGee thought was odd — so she scoured previous food orders to try and nail down a timeline of his disappearance. She scrutinized past texts with her brother to pinpoint a location, but her efforts felt futile.

“I was panicking because I knew what had happened to RayDel,” she said. “It was a feeling I can’t even describe. We lost our mother suddenly, and seven months later, our stepdad, who primarily raised Josh, died. And then our grandmother died, and our first cousin died of an overdose. So Josh is already an addict and now he’s out on the streets dealing with sudden death.”

As McGee did more research, she learned about the hundreds of other sober-living homes in Arizona that had been shut down. It became clear that the problem was bigger than just her and her brother, so she approached the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

“I told council, ‘I need help,’” she recalled. “’You sent him there through a program on this reservation. I need help getting him back.’”

The council ultimately paid for a few of McGee’s family members to fly to Arizona, and they successfully brought Racine home, but McGee’s work was not done. Upon her brother’s return, she began to piece together the broken system.

Through conversations with her brother, McGee said she learned that Sunrise charged AHCCCS at least $117,000 in one month for services related to Racine — services that Racine himself said he did not receive.

“That was for one month for one person,” McGee said. “So imagine doing that for 20 or 80 people in a facility. It adds up.”

Racine told McGee that the centers would give clients $50 a week to live on, and he was reportedly told by Sunrise that if he recruited other Native Americans, they would reward him with $100.

“It’s systemic,” McGee said. “There weren’t protocols, and people were being taken advantage of.”

McGee said people struggling with addiction are a particularly vulnerable population, which worked to the scheme’s advantage.

“These are addicts who have lost the trust of their families,” she said. “So when they say, ‘This treatment center isn’t good. They’re putting me out on the street,’ families weren’t believing them. These people knew that and used it against them.”

That’s exactly what happened to Wendy Bremner. Her daughter Brooke Running Crane, Blackfeet, also went to Sunrise, and Running Crane was also suspicious of the facility. She told her mother she wasn’t comfortable at Sunrise and was scared to be there. But Bremner didn’t know what to do.

“I didn’t want to be an enabler,” she said. “I don’t know if what she’s telling me is true. I don’t want to interfere with treatment.”

Later, Running Crane’s anxiety about Sunrise rose to a breaking point, and she was hospitalized for a panic attack. Sunrise told Bremner that her daughter could not return to the facility, and as far as Bremner could tell, her daughter was going to be discharged from the hospital on to the streets.

Bremner called Sunrise over and over again until they finally agreed to help transfer Running Crane to another facility. Running Crane’s new facility is a good one, but Bremner said she doesn’t know what would’ve happened to her daughter if she hadn’t intervened.

“It was really scary,” she said. “She didn’t have anywhere to go, and I was just calling people saying, ‘You can’t just throw my daughter out.’”

Bremner said her daughter ended up at Sunrise because she’d heard of several people in Browning who’d gone there. And when Running Crane expressed that she wanted to receive treatment, Bremner said the treatment facilities in Arizona “felt like a miracle.”

“Families are desperate to get their people help when they say, ‘I want to go to treatment,’” she said. “It’s very rare, so at that moment, you really want to get them in somewhere while they’re ready to go. It’s so hard to get treatment here, and sending her far away is scary, but we wanted her to get help.”

AHCCCS payments to Sunrise Native Wellness were suspended on July 21 — almost two months after Racine went missing and five months after Running Crane’s panic attack.

Tribes take action

After the Blackfeet Council helped get Racine home, it quickly became clear that its work wasn’t done.

As McGee became more vocal on Facebook, more and more families reached out saying their loved ones were missing or stuck at treatment centers in Arizona. McGee continued to present her findings to the tribal government, and eventually, the council came out with a formalized plan of action.

Councilman Lyle Rutherford directed facilities on the reservation, including Journey to Recovery, not to send clients to treatment centers in Arizona. The tribe has worked with McGee and other advocates to bring at least 10 members home. And on Tuesday, the council issued a public health state of emergency “for Blackfeet tribal members affected by the humanitarian crisis arising from shuttered fraudulent behavioral health treatment facilities in Arizona.”

The council on Thursday instituted a ban prohibiting the solicitation of individuals on the reservation to attend fraudulent treatment facilities in Arizona and established civil penalties for individuals or entities that violate the ban at $5,000 for the first offense, $10,000 for the second offense and permanent expulsion from the reservation on the third offense.

The council also pledged to continue to help members who were displaced and said it created a task force to identify displaced individuals.

Councilwoman Shelly Hall said the emergency declaration helps bring awareness to the crisis and could allow the tribe to allocate more money toward its resolution.

“I believe there are about eight or 10 more Blackfeet down there,” Hall said. “This is important because these are our members. If they’re in any kind of trouble, we want to help them. We’ve heard horror stories of people who are on the streets in this heat.”

McGee said she also urged Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office to issue a public service announcement on the matter but was told that his office needed more information on the subject. She also reached out to members of Montana’s congressional delegation, and Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urging the group to “immediately investigate this matter further and provide a detailed report of their findings.”

The Billings Area Indian Health Service has asked Montana tribes to let the agency know how many citizens have been impacted, and other tribes in Montana have also taken action.

Josie Fisher, Northern Cheyenne, was at a different treatment facility in Arizona and didn’t feel safe. She said a staff member made inappropriate sexual comments to her, and she wrote on Facebook that she wanted to leave.

Fisher got connected with advocates through Facebook, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe paid for her plane ticket home.

“I’m so thankful to be home,” she said. “I’m at peace now. When I was there, I was just in survival mode.”

Northern Cheyenne Councilwoman Melissa Lonebear said as of Aug. 1, the tribe had helped three members get home from Arizona and added that the council is working with the tribal health department to develop a plan to get more people home.

She said part of the issue is that there is no treatment center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

“The way the system is set up is if someone hits rock bottom and they want treatment, they will do an assessment at the Northern Cheyenne Recovery Center and then get referred to an outpatient 10-day program,” she said. “After 10 days, there’s a chance a bed will open in Billings or Butte, but that person may have to just return home. And because we don’t have sober living homes here, people come back and return to the same environment.”

Lonebear is hopeful that the tribe will be able to help people return home from Arizona, but acknowledged the council will have to overcome significant barriers in doing so. To be eligible for AHCCCS, treatment centers had clients change their residency address to Arizona, so it’s hard for tribal councils in Montana to know how many of their members are there. And tribes have noted that even when someone returns home, it can take time to change their residency back to Montana and re-enroll them in Medicaid.

“I just posted on Facebook asking, ‘How many Cheyenne members do we have in Arizona?’” Lonebear said. “I’m getting names from families, and it’s hard. It’s hard to reach people because there’s no way to communicate if that person doesn’t have a phone. This is a lot bigger than we know.”

Fisher’s boyfriend was at the same facility in Arizona, but it wasn’t as easy for him to get home. Jacinto Brien is Crow, and he tried reaching out to his tribe, just as Fisher had. But he had no luck.

“I tried reaching my tribe on the phone, but I couldn’t get ahold of anyone,” he said. “And because I’m Crow, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe couldn’t help.”

Reva Stewart, of the #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits campaign, ultimately fundraised to help get Brien home. Her GoFundMe has raised more than $8,000 to help Native Americans caught in the scam.

“I’m really grateful,” Brien said of Stewart’s efforts. “I’d just say, for any tribe that’s willing to help, please answer your phones. People need your help. This is important.”


If you or a loved one is at an Arizona treatment center or was at an Arizona treatment center and wants to come home, here are some resources:

  • Call your tribe. See if they can help bring you or a loved one home.
  • The Billings Area Indian Health Service is asking each tribe to let the agency know how many members have been impacted. Send relevant information to and or call 406-247-7248.
  • For an updated list on which Arizona treatment centers have been suspended, visit
  • To either verify or report an existing treatment center, visit
  • If you suspect Medicaid fraud or a health violation, call the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ fraud hotline at 800-201-6308.
  • If you would like to file a report to add to the ongoing FBI investigation into Arizona treatment centers, visit
  • Advocates Reva Stewart and Laura McGee can be reached on Facebook.

This article was first published in the Missoulian. 

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