The Biden administration is expected to soon finalize a rule banning oil and gas leasing near a Native American historical site despite heavy opposition from local Indigenous leaders, who say the administration’s rule would prevent them from collecting royalties on their land.
The rule, which the Department of Interior (DOI) announced in November 2021, would implement a 20-year moratorium on federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park located in northwest New Mexico. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the rule, which would amount to a withdrawal of 336,000 acres of public lands from mineral leasing, would protect the environment and “rich cultural legacy” of the region.
“We’re not destroying anything — we are Native Americans ourselves. Nobody is destroying the park,” Delora Hesuse, a Navajo Nation citizen who owns allotted land in the Greater Chaco region, told Fox News Digital in an interview. “The oil companies sure aren’t destroying the park. And they have new technology.”
“It just seems like they are listening more to the environmentalist people,” she continued.
Hesuse represents a group of Navajo citizens who own land that has been allotted to them by the federal government for generations and which is often leased to oil and gas drilling and exploration companies. The group opposes the Biden administration rule, saying it would prevent them from collecting much-needed royalties on the land they’ve held for decades.
While the administration has stated the rule wouldn’t impact Indian-owned allotments, blocking federal land leasing would ultimately block development on non-federal land, according to Hesuse and other local stakeholders including Navajo Nation leadership.
“In reality, the rule would have a devastating impact because the indirect effects would make the allottee land worthless from the standpoint of energy extraction,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer wrotye in a letter to President Biden in November slamming the proposal.
“To maximize full extraction of the product, a horizontal lateral crossing of two to four miles of subsurface may be required,” they added. “Due to the cross jurisdictional land status in Navajo Eastern Agency, a proposed horizontal lateral may need to cross federal land.”
The Navajo Nation Council also condemned the proposal, saying it would instead support a five-mile radius, a compromise backed by industry. Council Delegate Mark Freeland said families from the allotted land areas were “ignored” by the DOI.
In addition, the board of county commissioners of San Juan County, New Mexico, passed a resolution in April stating that it “strongly opposes” the Biden administration proposal. The resolution noted the rule would make it impossible for owners of individual Indian allotments to drill for and extract minerals since pipelines must cross federal land below the surface.
“It is really going to make an impact on the allottees if they follow through with the withdrawal of federal lands and public lands around Chaco Canyon,” Hesuse said.
Hesuse noted that the Navajo community is extremely impoverished and that oil and gas revenues are critical for sustaining many individuals.
There are currently 53 Indian allotments located in the so-called 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon, generating $6.2 million per year in royalties for an estimated 5,462 allottees, according to the Navajo Nation. In addition, there are 418 unleased allotments in the zone that are associated with more than 16,000 allottees.
“We are very poor. It’s like living in a third world. No help from the government, no help from the tribe,” Jean Armenta, another Navajo citizen with allotted land, told Fox News Digital. “A lot of us don’t have electricity or running water.”
“I’m for drilling, I’m for drilling,” she added. “People need the money.”
Armenta and Hesuse both criticized Haaland for prioritizing the requests of environmentalists over Indigenous people. Navajo leaders have also accused DOI leadership of failing to properly consult with Navajo allottees on the proposal.
“Assistant Secretary Newland, BLM Director Stone-Manning and leadership from both of their teams have visited Navajo Nation multiple times to meet with allottees, Navajo leaders and community members,” DOI spokesperson Melissa Schwartz told Fox News Digital. “The public has also had the opportunity to provide comments.”
“We are deeply committed to engaging with the diverse stakeholders on this process as well as the larger Honoring Chaco Initiative, facilitated by the BLM,” she continued.
Last week, the DOI issued guidance to bolster the role of tribes in federal land management. Despite this guidance, the administration hasn’t publicly acknowledged the proposed five-mile buffer zone compromise proposed by the Navajo Nation Council.
“This administration talks a good talk about consulting with the tribes,” Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance, told Fox News Digital in an interview. “But when the tribes pass legislation offering a compromise to the federal government, the federal government has ignored it.”
Sgamma’s group represents companies with active drilling projects in the Chaco region.
“We provide a source of livelihood in an impoverished area,” she continued.
“These are people that own these minerals and are property owners,” she said. “When you have the federal government infringing on Navajo property owners, it’s hard to say that this administration is committed to environmental justice.”
Overall, New Mexico is among the most fossil fuel-rich states in the nation — it produced the second-most crude oil and was a top-ten natural gas producer last year, according to the Energy Information Administration. The state also has 9% of U.S. proved crude oil reserves and 6% of proved natural gas reserves, making it a major contributor to total energy supplies.
The New Mexico energy industry is responsible for about 100,000 jobs and has an economic impact of $12.8 billion per year, according to the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association.
“Over 100,000 of my fellow New Mexicans are employed by the oil and gas industry, which also supports our public education system through royalties and taxes,” Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., told Fox News Digital in a statement.
“The Biden administration prefers freezing permits, political gimmicks, and putting up roadblocks to domestic energy innovation instead of promoting affordable, reliable, and clean energy, and American families are the ones who will bear the burden.”