Aggregate Airs: Atmospheres of Oil and Gas in the Greater Chaco

Sonia Grant


In the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico, new fracking technologies are stirring up lands, chemicals, and relations that concentrate attention in the surround. This article argues that extraction’s cumulative atmospheric effects are experienced by Diné residents of the region in ways that cannot be accounted for by the agencies that manage oil and gas. The state’s presumption of atmospheric commensurability is reinforced by techniques of settler governance that fragment ecological and ontological domains like air and land. This fragmentation often preempts the possibility for Indigenous claims to meaningfully disrupt administrative or judicial actions. Unfolding extraction’s atmospheres across three cases, I examine how scale mediates the problem of commensurability. I describe how prevailing approaches to regulating impacts of the oil and gas industry manipulate scale in ways that obscure the cumulative effects of extraction.  Drawing on fieldwork with Diné residents of the region who have mobilized to study how fracking affects their wellbeing, and I show how this scalar work facilitates the commensuration of extraction’s impacts across Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds––as well as when this commensuration fails.


atmospheres; incommensurability; oil and gas extraction; scale; settler colonialism

Full Text:



Allen, B. 2003. Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor Disputes. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Alvarez, R., and et al. 2018. “Assessment of Methane Emissions from the U.S. Oil and Gas Supply Chain.” Science 361 (6398): 186–88.

Anderson, B. 2009. “Affective Atmospheres.” Emotion, Space and Society 2: 77–81.

Berlant, L. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

______. 2016. “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times”.

Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 34(3): 383-419. 10.1177/0263775816645989

Bumpers, W. and P. Williams. 2013. “Sixth Circuit Pushes Back on EPA Oil and Gas Source Aggregation Under the Clean Air Act.” Harvard Business Law Review Online. 41.

Byrd, J., A. Goldstein, J. Melamed, and C. Reddy. 2018. “Predatory Value: Economies of Dispossession and Disturbed Relationalities.” Social Text 36 (2): 1–18.

Byrd, J. and M. Rothberg. 2011. “Between Subalternity and Indigeneity: Critical Categories for Postcolonial Studies.” Interventions 13 (1): 1–12.

Cadena, M. de la. 2018. “Uncommons.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights,

———. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Cadena, M. de la, and M. Blaser, eds. 2018. A World of Many Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Cajete, G. 2014. “Foreword.” In Diné Perspectives: Revitalizing and Reclaiming Navajo Thought, edited by L. Lee, ix–xii. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press.

Choy, T. 2014. Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

———. 2018. “Tending to Suspension: Abstraction and Apparatuses of Atmospheric Attunement in Matsutake Worlds.” Social Analysis 62 (4): 54–77.

Choy, T. and J. Zee. 2015. “Condition - Suspension.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (2): 210–23.

Curley, A. 2018. “T’aa’hwo Aji t’eego and the Moral Economy of Navajo

Coal Workers.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 1–16.

Diné Citizens v Bernhardt, 1:15-CV-00209 (10th Cir. 2019).

Dongoske, K. T. Pasqual, and T. King. 2015. “The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Silencing of Native American Worldviews.” Environmental Practice, no. 17: 36–45.

Emerson, L. and H. Benally. 2017. “Hózhóógó Na’adá Assessment Regarding Local Fracking and Drilling Operations, Eastern Navajo Agency.” Counselor Chapter, Eastern Navajo Agency: Counselor Health Impact- Hózhóógó na’adá Committee.

Espeland, W. 1998. The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Espeland, W. and M. Stevens. 1998. “Commensuration as a Social Process.” Annual Review of Sociology 24: 313–43.

Fanon, F. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by R. Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27 (3): 446–64.

Frankenberg, C., A. Thorpe, and E. Kort. 2016. “Airborne Methane Remote Measurements Reveal Heavy Tail Flux Distribution in Four Corners Region.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (35): 9734–39.

Frickel, S., S. Gibbon, and J. Howard. 2010. “Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 35 (4): 444–73.

Frickel, S. and M. Vincent. 2011. “Katrina’s Contamination: Regulatory Knowledge Gaps in the Making and Unmaking of Environmental Contentio.” In Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response, and Recoverty, edited by R. A. Dowty and B. L. Allen. 11-28 London: Earthscan.

Gilio-Whitaker, D. 2019. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. Boston: Beacon Press.

Grant, S. Forthcoming. “Chess or Checkers? Fracking in the Greater Chaco,” in Essays on the 21st Century West, edited by B. Rensink. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Hess, D. 2020. “The Sociology of Ignorance and Post‐Truth Politics.” Sociological Forum 35 (1): 241-49.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2019. “Global Warming of 1.5.” United Nations.

Jalbert, K. 2016. “Building Knowledge Infrastructures for Empowerment: A Study of Grassroots Water Monitoring Networks in the Marcellus Shale.” Science & Technology Studies, 29(2).

Kinchy, A. S. Parks, and K. Jalbert. 2016. “Fractured Knowledge: Mapping the Gaps in Public and Private Water Monitoring Efforts in Areas Affected by Shale Gas Development.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 34: 879 99.

Lepselter, S. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lord Jr., S. 2012. “Aggregation Consternation: Clean Air Act Source Determination Issues in the Oil & Gas Patch.” Pace Environmental Law Review 29 (13).

Lyons, K. 2020. Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Masco, J. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

———.2015 “The Age of Fallout.” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History 5 (2). 137-168.

McCarthy, G. 2009. “Withdrawal of Source Determination for Oil and Gas Industries.” United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Air and Radiation. Memo to Regional Administrators. September 22, 2009.

Murphy, M. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers.

Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

New Mexico Administrative Code (NMAC). Title 20 (Environmental Protection).

Nisbet, E., M., Manning, E. Dlugokencky, et al. 2019. “Very Strong Atmospheric Methane Growth in the 4 Years 2014–2017: Implications for the Paris Agreement.” Global Biogeochemical Cycles 33: 318–42. 2018GB006009.

Ottinger, G. 2013. Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges. New York: New York University Press.

Pappas, J. and J. Juen. 2014. “State Protocol Between the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Officer Regarding the Manner in Which BLM Will Meet Its Responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act in New Mexico.” Santa Fe, N.M.

Pasternak, S. and H. King. 2019. “Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper.” Toronto, Ontario.: Yellowhead Institute.

Povinelli, E. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 319–34.

———. 2011. “The Governance of the Prior.” Interventions 13 (1): 13–30.

Powell, D. 2018. Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation. Durham: Duke University Press.

Redhouse, J. 1984. The Leasing of Dinetah: An Eastern Navajo Odyssey. Roots of Navajo Relocation Series. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Redhouse/Wright Productions.

Rodgers, L. 2004. “Chapter Images: Profiles of 110 Navajo Nation Chapters.” Window Rock, AZ: Navajo Nation.

Shapiro, N. 2015. “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (3): 368–93.

Sharpe, C. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Simmons, K. 2017. “Settler Atmospherics.” Cultural Anthropology Website Member Voices (Fieldsights).

Simpson, A. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Smith, M, and et al. 2017. “Airborne Quantification of Methane Emissions over the Four Corners Region.” Environmental Science & Technology 51: 5832–37.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2004. Partial Connections. New York: AltaMira Press.

Tsosie, D, T Seamster, S Joginpally, C Lewis, B Velivis, H Benally, and M Benally. 2020. “A Cultural, Spiritual and Health Impact Assessment of Oil Drilling Operations in the Navajo Nation Area of Counselor, Torreon and Ojo Encino Chapters.”

Tsosie, R. 2006. “Challenges to Sacred Site Protection.” Denver University Law Review 83 (4): 963–80.

Tuck, E. and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1–40.

United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 2003. “Farmington Resource Management Plan with Record of Decision.” Farmington, New Mexico: United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office.

______ 1986. “Rio Puero Resource Management Plan and Record of Decision.” Albuquerque District, Rio Puerco Resource Area: Bureau of Land Management.

United States Department of the Interior (DOI). 1995. “National Register Bulletin: How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation.” Washington, D.C.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2019. “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Methane Emissions.”

Voyles, T. 2015. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Whyte, K. 2018. “Settler Colonialism, Ecology and Environmental Injustice.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research. 9: 125-144. doi:10.3167/ares.2018.090109

Wylie, S. 2018. Fractivism: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Yazzie, M. 2018. “Decolonizing Development in Diné Bikeyah: Resource Extraction, Anti-Capitalism, and Relational Futures.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9: 25–39.


Copyright (c) 2020 Sonia Grant

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.