A plan to bar oil and gas exploration within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon National Park for the next 20 years has drawn a quick response from some Western Republicans.
The announcement came shortly after tribal leaders met with President Joe Biden at the White House. Many of the tribal leaders have been fighting oil and gas exploration in the area, sacred to several tribes and one of the most important collections of prehistoric ruins in the southwest.
However, the Navajo Tribal Council opposed the ban, saying it should be more limited.
Chaco Canyon Park includes some 30,000 acres in northwest New Mexico and was set aside in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Chaco Canyon in the 9th through 13th centuries was home to a complex Pueblo culture, linked to a large area by still mysterious, exquisitely constructed roads.
The temporary ban on oil and gas drilling there comes in the wake of lawsuits by environmental groups that have temporarily blocked fracking operations on the edge of Petrified Forest National Park to extract helium. The federal government agreed to undertake additional environmental studies when faced by the lawsuit.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history, defended the Chaco Canyon lease withdrawal.
“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. Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations. I value and appreciate the many tribal leaders, elected officials and stakeholders who have persisted in their work to conserve this special area.”
Rep. Paul Gosar blasted the decision to pause issuing of drilling permits near Chaco.
“Today’s latest land grab by the Biden administration will strip hundreds of Navajo allottees of their rights to their lands by imposing an unscientific and overreaching buffer around Chaco Canyon,” said Rep. Gosar in a release. “We heard from these allottees directly and urged the DOI to listen and reject this reckless policy. This action is another attack on America’s energy independence by the Biden administration. They are determined to shut down federal lands to all energy development while begging foreign countries for more oil. “
The 24th Navajo Nation Council in a release opposed the ban on new leases, saying the federal government had not adequately consulted with the tribe.
“The Biden Administration bypassed previous requests to Congress for field hearings and for leaders to hear directly from our Navajo families affected in the Chaco Canyon region. The position of the Navajo Nation Council is for the creation of a five-mile buffer within and around this sacred site. It is important that the federal government consider and work with our Navajo allottees to further advance development. The Administration must respect our tribal sovereignty and what the government to government relationship entails,” said Speaker Seth Damon (Bááhaalí, Chichiltah, Manuelito, Red Rock, Rock Springs, Tséyatoh).
“Protecting the interests of the Navajo people in the Eastern Agency is vital to our roles as the governing of the Navajo Nation. We must ensure the livelihood of Navajo allotted land owners in the greater Chaco Canyon area are maintained. The Navajo Nation through a resolution has provided a compromise to also protect this sacred area from mineral development. The Biden administration has to work with us to find a solution that meets our needs and that is this five-mile buffer zone,” said Resources and Development Committee Chair Rickie Nez (T’iistsoh Sikaad, Nenahnezad, Upper Fruitland, Tsé Daa K’aan, Newcomb, San Juan).
The Interior Department indicated the ban would affect only federal lands, not tribal or private lands. It would also not affect existing leases.
Meanwhile, the federal government has undertaken additional environmental studies of a plan to frack for hydrogen near the border of the Petrified Forest.
Environmental groups agreed to suspend a lawsuit pending the outcome of those environmental studies.
That lawsuit involves several parcels owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management over the Coconino aquifer. Fracking involves injecting high pressure water and other fluids into underground natural gas and oil deposits. The pressurized fluids force oil, natural gas and hydrogen out of the rocks, which can be captured by well sites.
Environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians argued the process could contaminate ground water, including perhaps the underground flows that feed the Little Colorado River, which in turn feeds into the Grand Canyon. The drilling companies argued the fracking operations will take place in a portion of the underground water table that’s so full of minerals that it’s not useful.
The environmental groups also argued the fracking fluids could leave toxic chemicals at the surface.