Indigenous tribes have fought for years to protect Chaco Canyon, one of the oldest and most culturally important native sites in the United States, from the oil and gas industry. Located in the high desert of northwest New Mexico, the historical site served as a hub for ceremony, politics, and trade from the ninth to 13th centuries. Today, the 1,000-year-old stone structures still stand.
On Monday, President Joe Biden proposed a 20-year ban on new oil and gas drilling on federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon. The announcement was made at the Biden administration’s first Tribal Nations Summit.
“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked, and thrived in that high desert community,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. Haaland is from New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She has previously fought to protect the Chaco landscape.
According to a National Parks Conservation Association report, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is one of the public parks most at-risk from oil and gas development in the United States. While Chaco Canyon itself is currently protected from drilling, the surrounding area is not. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, leases 90 percent of federal land around Greater Chaco for drilling. The extraction sites cause significant noise, water, light, and air pollution.
Last year, under the Trump administration, the BLM held public comment meetings on a plan that would have added 3,000 new oil and gas wells in the area around Chaco Canyon. Public comment periods are required to solicit community feedback, but critics decried the agency for holding the meetings in the middle of a pandemic. Indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In May 2020, the New Mexico Health Department reported that Native Americans made up 56 percent of coronavirus cases despite representing just 11 percent of the state’s population. In addition, less than half of rural tribal households have broadband internet service, which made it difficult for communities near Chaco Canyon to participate in virtual meetings about the Trump proposal.
Environmentalists celebrated the Biden administration’s new proposed drilling ban. “We are thrilled that the Biden administration is heeding the calls of Indigenous communities that have been fighting for hundreds of years to protect their ancestral lands from further desecration,” Alex Taurel, a director for the League of Conservation Voters, said in a press release. “We hope this process results in long-term protections for the Chaco Canyon area. Embracing this and other examples of tribally-led conservation efforts can help the United States fight climate change and advance equity at a time when we must act boldly on both fronts.”
The process to ban new drilling in the Chaco region will take approximately two years. The agency must conduct an environmental analysis and seek public comment on the plan, during which time the land will not be available for leasing. Beginning in 2022, the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs plan to initiate formal tribal consultation about the future of energy development in the region. The new ban would not impact current leases or resource rights.
Robert McEntyre, a representative for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told the New York Times he thought the 10-mile rule was “arbitrary.”
“There doesn’t appear to be a scientific or environmental rationale for that 10-mile radius,” he said. “Given the role that oil and gas plays in the economy of that area, we shouldn’t have an arbitrary number that would limit economic opportunities, perhaps the only economic opportunities, in that part of the state.”