President Joe Biden’s administration took steps today to begin the process of banning new oil and gas leases within a 10 mile buffer zone of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for 20 years. Monday, the president announced a series of initiatives focused on Indigenous communities, including the Chaco Canyon buffer zone. This came during the Tribal Nations Summit. The president instructed the U.S. Department of the Interior to initiate the process for withdrawing the area around the park from new oil and gas leasing for two decades. Over the last decade, Native American groups in both Arizona and New Mexico have been lobbying for protections of the sacred Chaco region from oil and gas development, leading to several congressional actions that temporarily deferred leasing.
Tribal governments are working with archaeologists to identify thousands of culturally-sensitive sites and resources in the Greater Chaco region, in hopes of preventing oil and gas development in the area from encroaching further onto the sacred landscape.
The studies are part of a multi-pronged strategy to protect the area amid increased oil and gas leasing on federal lands in New Mexico. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas leasing on federal lands, including land in the Greater Chaco region, has increased fourfold in the state.
Last year, Congress passed a bill granting a one-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture Historical National Park. That moratorium expires later this week on September 30.
Meanwhile, the deadline for public comments on a proposal that could see as many as 3,000 new oil and gas leases sold in the Greater Chaco landscape passed September 25. The deadline took place amid repeated calls made by tribal governments and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to halt the proceedings until after the COVID-19 pandemic had ended and the virus is contained.
Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo expressed disappointment that BLM and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is also involved in the proposal, did not further delay the public comment period.
“We are very discouraged by the fact that these deadlines have remained in place, even while we have made numerous attempts, and have voiced even through our congressional delegations, the need to pause some of these activities as a result of the public health crisis,” Vallo said during a webinar about oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region.
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But Vallo added that he’s hopeful BLM and BIA will offer up more opportunities for tribal consultation on the proposal moving forward. Vallo said that, despite the pandemic and its impacts on tribal communities in the state, there was a great response from the pueblos and other indigenous nations who submitted comments expressing their concerns.
Last week marked the first time Lee Moquino had delivered an invocation before the state House of Representatives. It might have been his last. In fact, Moquino may be among the last members of the public and the faith community to kick off each House session with a prayer. House Speaker Brian Egolf has decided to do away with the long-standing practice of asking clergy and others to give the invocation; instead, state representatives will provide the daily prayer on the House floor during the legislative session. The change came soon after Moquino’s invocation, delivered in English and Tewa, in which he told lawmakers they were standing in “occupied indigenous space” and that Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico should be protected from oil and gas drilling and other disturbances.
A bill to establish a permanent 10-mile buffer around Chaco Canyon to protect it from oil and gas extraction activity passed the U.S. House on Wednesday with bipartisan support. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small, would prohibit oil and gas activity on nearly 500 square miles of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held land surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The bill passed 245-174, with all Democrats in the House voting in favor of the legislation, along with 17 Republicans. The legislation would withdraw BLM-held land within the 10-mile buffer around the Chaco Canyon park from future oil and gas development, but would not prevent the Navajo Nation or individuals with allotments in the buffer zone from pursuing energy development.
“Take a left here,” Daniel Tso says, gesturing with a hand towards an unmarked dirt road. There’s a small, hand-painted sign beside a tree that reads “Living Spring Church,” the only marker I’ve seen so far that differentiates this dirt road from the web of other unmarked roads we took to get here. We’re headed to a group of fracking wells in what’s now called the “Greater Chaco landscape,” 25 million square miles of land outside of Counselor, New Mexico. Tso, who is a delegate on the Navajo Nation Council representing Counselor and the surrounding area, sits in the passenger seat of the car while my husband drives. I’m in the backseat, taking notes as he points out changes to the landscape caused by oil and gas development.
Daniel Tso, right, leads the “Fracking Reality Tours” in the Greater Chaco region.
Environmental groups and Navajo government officials are criticizing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the bureau’s handling of oil and gas leases approved in the Greater Chaco area. Navajo leaders and 16 tribal and environmental organizations addressed their concerns in a letter sent to BLM’s New Mexico state director Tim Spisak last week calling for more public hearings on the issue. “We urge you to reject the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Findings of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessments,” the letter reads. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved environmental assessments for five sets of oil and gas wells that did not address the cumulative water impacts of nearly 4,000 horizontal Mancos Shale wells in the Greater Chaco region. The ruling covered environmental assessments approved by BLM for 25 applications to drill in the area.
Activist Cheyenne Antonio lists the toxic legacies left by resource extraction and industry on Navajo lands: Superfund sites, coal mines, uranium contamination. But fracking, she says, “is a beast times ten that we cannot contain.”
With over 40,000 oil and gas wells spread throughout the San Juan Basin, many Navajo communities are on the frontlines of New Mexico’s oil and gas boom. Antonio, 25, has seen the impacts in her home Torreon, a small Navajo community surrounded by oil and gas development in northwest New Mexico. “Our aquifer right now is under threat from oil and gas industries,” she says. And she’s concerned about a rise in cancer diagnoses in her family.
COUNSELOR — About halfway through a late-April Sunday service at the Living Spring Baptist Church, the sermon took an unusual turn. Pastor Tom Guerito’s exhortations to trust in God and resist sin, delivered mostly in Diné, gave way to a more earthly concern: oil and gas. “People say, ‘I smell it,’” Guerito told the 20 or so parishioners, who since 2012 have lived among an expanding constellation of oil and gas wells. But an air monitor installed nearby found nothing out of the ordinary, he said. “There’s nothing in the air.
SANTA FE — New Mexico is becoming an “energy sacrifice zone,” according to those who oppose the sale of 84,000 acres of state lands for oil and gas drilling. Opponents will rally at the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters in Santa Fe on Wednesday, one day ahead of Thursday’s planned online sale. The sell-off will include 46,000 acres in the culturally significant Greater Chaco region. The sale is scheduled despite 10,000 citizen protest comments, according to Miya King-Flaherty, organizer of Our Wild New Mexico at the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. She said the BLM is showing chronic disregard for public concerns, community health impacts and tribal consultation.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal government is proceeding with plans for a December auction of oil and gas drilling leases on thousands of acres of land in the Greater Chaco region. A comment period on the proposal opened today and will continue through October 31, despite a pending Senate bill that would protect the area, and without a cultural review and consultation promised by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Miya King-Flaherty, organizer with the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, said the government is violating its own procedures by not having a resource management plan in place. “They’re not following their own rules,” King-Flaherty said; “they’re really just rubber-stamping these drilling permits while not giving the thorough analysis that they are mandated to do.” New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have introduced legislation to protect the greater Chaco region.