A Turning Point in the Fight to Protect New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Region
The Biden administration’s proposal to prohibit new oil and gas leasing and drilling in the area comes after years of exploitation that’s had devastating health and cultural impacts on Indigenous communities.
Last November, under a blazing blue sky, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Biden administration’s proposal to end new oil and gas leasing for 20 years within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. For many of the tribal leaders, elected officials, and community members who were present, the announcement was very welcome—and long overdue.
The Greater Chaco region makes up nearly 8,000 square miles in northwestern New Mexico and is home to thousands of Navajo and Puebloan families. The area is the birthplace of ancient traditions and ceremonies. It also includes the culturally and spiritually significant Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Yet, for years, local residents have felt that the federal government wasn’t doing enough to protect their ancestral communities or cultural landscapes. They also think it ignored its duty to control unchecked oil and gas development or take meaningful steps to safeguard against climate change. So this most recent action offers new hope for activists, including those with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE), a nonprofit organization that works with Navajo communities affected by environmental issues. Diné CARE previously and successfully partnered with NRDC and others on a case challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s authorization of permits to drill in the Greater Chaco region. “President Biden’s promise to protect not just the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, but the Greater Chaco landscape promises to end the practice of Diné communities serving as sacrifice zones for oil and gas development,” said Carol Davis, the group’s executive director, in a statement.
A Long History of Fossil Fuel Exploitation
Today, more than 91 percent of available lands in the Greater Chaco area have already been leased for industrialized fracking. As a result, there are about 40,000 oil and gas wells, and the administration’s proposed protections do not affect valid existing leases or permits.
“For nearly two decades, this region has been overwhelmed by oil and gas development, with no consideration to its negative impacts on local communities,” says Alison Kelly, a senior attorney and deputy director for regional campaigns at NRDC.
That’s because when the Bureau first processed permits to drill these lands seven years ago, it didn’t look at the potentially harmful effects of fracking. Some of these permits were successfully challenged in court by NRDC and coalition partners, but as recently as 2020, the Bureau was still considering allowing more than 3,000 new wells in the area in a resource plan amendment for the region. That would be a profound injustice for communities already overburdened by a profusion of well pads, industrial wastewater ponds, pipelines, pump stations, and a web of access roads that are used by legions of trucks for daily industrial activities.
There’s also been a devastating health impact on local Indigenous residents, who have suffered from various issues, according to numerous investigations. In 2018, for example, the Counselor Chapter Health Impact Assessment (HIA) Committee conducted A Cultural, Spiritual and Health Impact Assessment at the request of local communities. The 80 Diné residents who participated reported an array of chronic symptoms, including sinus irritation, sore throat, nosebleeds, cough, headache, burning of eyes, joint pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. The majority of these residents lived within a mile of one or more active wells, pipelines, or other gas and oil infrastructure.
Air quality monitoring also identified elevated particulate matter—which can harm respiratory and cardiovascular functions—and chemical exposure from well operations at four sites. This included the detection of formaldehyde, which can cause irritation of the nose, throat, and eyes; the EPA considers it a “probable human carcinogen.”
“People get headaches in the morning, we have cancer out here now, people are being diagnosed with cardio diseases, and asthma cases have gone up,” Kendra Pinto, an organizer with Diné CARE, told NRDC in an interview last November.
The Demand for Justice
For years, the consistent approval of oil and gas drilling leases and permits in the face of such disproportionate impacts on local tribal communities alarmed Indigenous leaders. In 2016, alarm turned into terror when an explosion and fire at an oil production site near the Navajo town of Nageezi, New Mexico, killed livestock and forced 55 residents to evacuate.
Around the same time, the Frack Off Greater Chaco Coalition continued efforts to stop further oil and gas drilling. Members of that coalition, which includes NRDC, filed lawsuits, lobbied elected officials, and attended rallies. In 2019, some in Congress started to listen. They proposed the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019, which made it through the House of Representatives but not the Senate.
For now, under the Biden administration's proposed protections, the Bureau would need to conduct more comprehensive environmental reviews, consult with tribes on potential impacts, and seek public comments before authorizing further extraction in the region. While this is a big step in the right direction, many tribal leaders, community members, and elected officials said they will continue to push for more permanent protections. “Ultimately, we're hoping that Congress will pass legislation that takes new federal oil and gas leasing in the region off the table permanently—and this latest action makes space for that process,” says Kelly.
According to the Bureau, Secretary Haaland is asking for the agency and Bureau of Indian Affairs to begin holding regional meetings in early 2022 that aim to create collaborative plans for managing cultural and natural resources in the Greater Chaco region. At the November event, Haaland addressed this effort, saying, “I’m calling the process ‘Honoring Chaco’ because that’s our obligation to each other and to the future.”
Davis echoed a similar sentiment. “The people in the Greater Chaco Landscape live by this maxim: What you do the earth; you do the people,” she said in a statement. “We are most hopeful that this action is a turning point where the United States’ natural resource management planning philosophy focuses on the protection of all living beings.”
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