It’s Wednesday, February 8, and 199 new oil and gas drilling permits have been blocked near Chaco Canyon.

Pueblo Bonito, the largest archeological site at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Tribal nations and environmental groups in the U.S. Southwest scored a victory last week when a federal appeals court rejected nearly 200 new oil and gas drilling permits in the Greater Chaco region of New Mexico.

A three-judge panel for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Trump administration’s Interior Department violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it approved the permits, because it failed to account for the drilling projects’ cumulative impacts to human health and climate change. The judges called the agency’s analysis “arbitrary and capricious.”

The Greater Chaco region, which covers parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, is home to many Pueblos and tribal nations who have occupied it for more than 2,000 years. It includes a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where roads, storage areas, and abandoned adobe houses up to five stories high offer a glimpse into Chacoan life between the ninth and 15th centuries.

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Recent years, however, have embroiled the region in a conflict over energy development, as fossil fuel companies seek to extract millions of barrels of oil from the 7,500-square-mile San Juan basin. In November 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced an informal two-year pause on new federal oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park — but the plan was criticized for allowing companies with existing leases to obtain new permits for further drilling. (The 199 permits in question predate the moratorium.)

Mario Atencio, Greater Chaco energy organizer for the Navajo-led nonprofit Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, said the recent ruling strikes a blow against environmental racism. He noted the oil and gas industry’s disproportionate harms to Indigenous people — and its refusal to respect the laws of the Navajo Nation, which recognize the inherent rights of nonhumans and features of the landscape.

“They say, ‘They’re just environmentalists,’” Atencio said, “which doesn’t compute when the law of the Navajo Nation says we have to be stewards of the landscape. … We’re just people of the land that are living by old Navajo philosophy, just trying to bring reason to the insanity that is oil and gas development.”

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