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Public Demands Greater Chaco Protection

Native Communities and Allies Speak Out at Last BLM Public Scoping Meeting

by Rebecca Sobel

Photos: Kendra Pinto

WINDOW ROCK, AZ —Navajo community members, joined by other Indigenous leaders from Northern Pueblos and allies across the Four Corners region, rallied at the last of eight public scoping meetings to call for relief from oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco area. Today at Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, AZ, community members gathered before and after the official meeting to pray and consult for further efforts to stop growing fracking development in this sacred area.

After admitting its 2003 Resource Management Plan (RMP) fails to adequately analyze the impacts of combined horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – fracking – in the Mancos Shale, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has joined with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to amend the plan, and has held scoping meetings mostly at Navajo Chapter Houses to solicit tribal input for the Amendment.

The process started off rocky. At the first scoping meeting November 10 at Shiprock Chapter House, Bureau of Land Management officials walked out as Chapter members attempted to give public comment on fracking impacts. Criticized for disrespect, BLM changed its meeting format to allow for public comment at all proceeding RMP-A scoping meetings.

Daniel Tso, former Torreon Chapter Council Delegate and allotment landowner has given statements at each scoping meeting and is hoping to finally have traditional tribal input included in BLM’s oil and gas management policies. “This RMP-A process is seen as a, 'look BLM-BIA are listening to the affected communities,'” he said. “But the 2003 RMP was never taken to these same communities. The Navajo people never had a say in the original plan.”

91% of public land in Northwest New Mexico is already leased to oil and gas interests, with most of the remaining unleased land in the Greater Chaco area. Despite the lack of adequate tribal consultation, environmental review, or a comprehensive plan for fracking in the area, BLM continues to grant hundreds of new drilling permits with 365 new wells and counting, and lease hundreds more acres of land to drill and frack the area. This January, an additional 842 acres are slated for sale during an auction to be held online, in yet another effort of BLM’s to avoid public scrutiny over its oil and gas leasing program.

"People here are dealing with a new daily stress when oil and gas moves in," said Kendra Pinto, Navajo community leader and Twin Pines resident. "Our culture, our history, our health, our water, cannot be pushed aside for profit.  A few designated archaeological sites in Chaco National Park are protected, but the landscape of Greater Chaco and the living cultural significance – the people, our land, and our water have been threatened for too long." 

Lyla June Johnston, a Diné/Cheyenne tribal member of the Naanessht’ezhi Taach’iinii clan added, "If the nation truly views all people as created equal, then the nation will heed our call for the protection of this land for current and future generations. The overall cry we hear from the community is, 'not one more oil well.'"

Navajo communities living amidst new fracking development are shouldering the on-the-ground impacts of oil and gas with still unfulfilled promises of increased economic security.

“Federal law requires a percentage of royalties generated from oil and gas extraction benefit communities directly affected by industry,” explained Lori Goodman, Board Member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment. “There are Navajo Nation communities --Huerfano, Nageezi, Counselor -- that are subjected to the negative social, environmental and health-related fallout of current rigorous horizontal and hydraulic fracturing activities. In 2014, the state and federal government collected roughly $12.5 to $14 million in oil royalties from these three Navajo Nation communities. The return on these royalties does not benefit these heavily fracked communities, thus perpetuating environmental discrimination.”

And while a new Trump Administration threatens to roll out the red carpet for fossil fuel special interests, Indigenous efforts are rising to protect the land, water, and climate for all peoples.

"Water protectors up north are showing the world the true power we have always held as Native Americans,” added Kendra Pinto. “We know we must protect Mother Earth, who cares for us and nourishes us.” New Mexican Senators Udall and Heinrich have issued statements supporting the rights of Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, but both have yet to comment on the need to safeguard Indigenous lives and water protection in Greater Chaco.

Pinto continued, “These scoping meetings have finally allowed BLM to hear the voices of Navajo people living dangerously close to fracking sites, but it’s time they truly listen and heed our call to protect our priceless resources, following Native direction on Native land, if we have any chance of sustaining the health of the land for future generations."

Fracking has already taken a terrible toll in Greater Chaco. The region hosts the nation’s largest methane hotspot as a result of oil and gas activities. In 2016, received an "F" from the American Lung Association for ground-level ozone (smog) pollution, responsible for over 12,000 asthma attacks in New Mexican children each year. On a regular basis there are oil and gas disasters - gas tank explosionswater tank explosions (associated with gas production), rupturesleaksspills,earthquakes, and air, soil and water contamination. There were more than 1,477 spills in New Mexico related to oil and gas production in 2015 alone – an average of 4 spills per day.  And in July 2016, a well pad near the Nageezi Chapter House exploded and burned for days, killing livestock and requiring local residents to evacuate.

A growing coalition with dozens of local and environmental groups as well as more than a dozen of Navajo Chapters have called for immediate relief for the area on multiple occasions. Of broadest consensus is the request for a moratorium on drilling and fracking until the multi-year amendment process and analysis is complete, safeguards for community health and the environment, and a call on BLM to invest in alternative development plans for just transitions away form fossil fuel economies.

“Applications for Permits to Drill continue to be processed, and the Federal Agencies proceed on a 'Development will continue,' timetable regardless of these scoping meetings,” added Daniel Tso. “That shows there is not a full faith effort to take the comments as 'the people have spoken.'

The BLM is required by its “multiple use mandate” to balance the uses of our public lands. Yet, for decades BLM has prioritized oil and gas production at the expense of all other land uses and public health. Groups hope the unprecedented inclusion of BIA in the RMP-A scoping process will assure Indigenous interests, community, health and safety, are finally addressed by the agency in managing its oil and gas program in New Mexico.

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Photos by Kendra Pinto

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