Santa Fe, NM—Citing the dangers and destruction caused by unchecked fracking in the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico, a coalition this week called on the Obama Administration to reverse plans to auction off public and Tribal lands in the region to the oil and gas industry.
In an administrative appeal (also called a “protest”), a broad coalition of local, regional, and national groups opposed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s plans to sell nearly 1,000 acres of publicly owned oil and gas mineral rights to the fracking industry.
The leases are located near the homes of Navajo residents and within 20 miles of Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.
“It is unconscionable that the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs are holding scoping meetings to hear from affected Navajo residents and chapter communities while in the same breath continue to open the flood gates to more hydraulic fracturing by holding the oil lease sale,” said Daniel Tso, former Torreon Council Delegate and whose paternal relatives are directly affected by the proposed leasing. “Navajo chapters, the small units of Navajo Nation have enacted resolutions to oppose this lease sale. What more can the disparate community people do to stop this vain government?”
The Obama Administration has acknowledged it lacks any plan to protect Indigenous peoples and the Greater Chaco landscape from fracking in the region. At the end of October, the administration announced it intends to conduct a comprehensive review of the health and environmental impacts of oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region, and develop a new protection plan.
In response, a growing coalition of Indigenous, environmental, and public health groups have called on the Bureau of Land Management to halt new oil and gas leasing in the Greater Chaco region and to reject the demands of the fracking industry until a new plan is in place.
“At every public hearing, we ask BLM to respect our rights and protect the lands, water, and public health of our communities in the face of this new fracking onslaught,” said Kendra Pinto of Twin Pines, Navajo Nation. “Fracking activities are already impacting us. Our lives are at risk every time we step out of our homes. We literally smell this activity on a daily basis. Cancer rates are skyrocketing. Yet, BLM is still trying to sacrifice even more of our lands for fracking? How many more people need to die before this stops?”
Flouting these requests, the Bureau of Land Management continues to open the door for more drilling and fracking, even though the agency is under no legal obligation to do so.
“BLM has admitted that new analysis is required to understand the landscape level impacts from fracking in the Greater Chaco region, yet shamelessly continue to authorize oil and gas leasing and development absent that understanding,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “This decision has very real consequences for the people who call these lands their home, and on the air, water, and climate they depend on.”
Fracking has already taken a terrible toll in region. The area hosts the nation’s largest methane hotspot as a result of oil and gas activities, a major threat to the climate. In 2016, the area received an "F" from the American Lung Association for ground-level ozone, or smog pollution, responsible for over 12,000 asthma attacks in New Mexican children each year. More than 1,477 spills in New Mexico related to oil and gas production occurred in 2015 alone—an average of four spills per day. In July 2016, a well pad on Navajo lands exploded and burned for days, killing livestock and forcing local residents to evacuate.
Chaco Canyon is considered the sacred heart of the American Southwest and is the core of the Greater Chaco region. A thousand years ago, long before any European colonization, the Ancestral Pueblos called the Greater Chaco region home. Today, the region supports Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Zuni, Ute, and modern-day Pueblo communities.
Pinto continued, “This area is our home. We, along with local wildlife, have established a life balance. Continuing to frack and rip apart the land threatens a balance that we may never attain again.”
Greater Chaco faces unprecedented pressure from the oil and gas industry. Already, more than 40,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the region and more than 91 percent of the land has been leased to the oil and gas industry by the Bureau of Land Management.
With the advent of new fracking technologies, the oil and gas industry is encroaching upon Chaco Canyon itself. More than 300 new oil and gas wells have been approved for fracking within 20 miles of the park.
In 2015, a coalition represented by the Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians filed suit to put a halt to new drilling and fracking, although a final ruling has yet to be issued.
The Bureau of Land Management intends to sell the latest oil and gas leases on January 25, 2017. The sale of the leases will virtually guarantee that the lands are drilled and fracked. A decision on the groups’ protest is expected in January.