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Biden proposes 20-year drilling ban around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sacred tribal site

President discusses the move, which affects a contested swath of federal land in New Mexico, at the White House Tribal Nations Summit

Chaco Canyon ruins in New Mexico. (Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Biden administration on Monday proposed a 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling in Chaco Canyon and surrounding areas in northwestern New Mexico, a sacred tribal site that also contains valuable oil and gas.

President Biden discussed the move at the opening of the White House Tribal Nations Summit, one of several steps intended to strengthen the relationship between the federal government and American Indian tribes. Biden also signed an executive order directing his Cabinet to develop a strategy to improve public safety and justice for Indigenous Americans.

“These efforts are “a matter of dignity,” Biden said during the summit. “That’s the foundation of our nation-to-nation partnership. That’s what this summit is all about.”

The plan for Chaco Canyon, which is in the home state of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, would direct the Bureau of Land Management to start the process for removing from leasing federal lands within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“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,” Haaland said in a statement. “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.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that he has yet to see the details of the administration’s plan.

“We support the protection of the Chaco Canyon region due to its historical and cultural significance for our Navajo people, but we also have to consider the concerns and rights of our Navajo citizens who have allotment lands,” Nez said.

Energy industry officials in New Mexico, a major oil and gas-producing state, criticized the proposal. New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said companies have “safely produced oil and natural gas in the San Juan Basin for decades while at the same time protecting the cultural and historic treasures throughout the region.”

“Arbitrary limits on development in the region will only disrupt the largest and most successful part of New Mexico’s economy and will rob local communities of jobs and economic growth opportunities,” he added. “

The area now known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park was one of the hubs of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization from about 850 until it was abandoned in the 13th century, leaving behind its settlements’ majestic remains. The agricultural society built houses with hundreds of rooms, using sawed timber. Excavations have found elaborate pottery, conch shell trumpets, beads, turquoise and other artifacts.

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The prospect of oil and gas drilling in the area has repeatedly drawn opposition from tribes and environmentalists. In 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke postponed a proposed lease sale on more than 4,000 acres in the region, calling for a detailed analysis of cultural sites there before the auction could take place. The Trump administration then released a plan to allow the drilling of more than 2,300 oil and gas wells in the area.

Late last year, Congress passed a one-year moratorium on drilling in the area. But tribal leaders and environmental groups say the landscape needs more permanent safeguards.

During an online discussion Monday on federal oil and gas leasing hosted by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said of Chaco: “The last administration couldn’t seem to come to the view of just leaving it alone, so kept kind of re-proposing different lease sales.”

Withdrawing land from future leasing, he added, is “an important tool that is within the toolbox of the secretary. … It’s something that can be really effective, especially in protecting sensitive and sacred places like Chaco.”

But Interior is pressing ahead with other controversial lease sales, after a federal judge ended Biden’s leasing pause, and it has yet to enact major changes to the program. This week, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to sell more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore oil and gas drilling.

Beaudreau said the administration was compelled to carry out the Gulf of Mexico sale because of the judge’s ruling.

“It is not the way that we would prefer to do business,” he said. “We are here to fundamentally reform the Interior Department’s oil and gas programs, both offshore and onshore. But a step along the way is we have to deal with [that lease sale]."

Environmentalists and others say the marks of fossil fuel extraction have damaged the landscape and that greenhouse gas emissions, including from abandoned wells, continue to be a major obstacle in the fight against climate change.

“If you visit the area you will immediately see the blight that comes from all-out oil and gas production: More than 30,000 wells have been drilled throughout the region, yet 10,000 of those are inactive and many will never be plugged and reclaimed,” Bruce Babbitt, an interior secretary under President Bill Clinton, wrote in September in an op-ed for Writers on the Range. “Sacred landscapes have been transformed into an industrial wasteland littered with rusting tanks and drill pads and connected by now-abandoned roads and pipelines.”

In the coming weeks, the BLM will set aside the land for two years as it conducts an environmental analysis and gathers public comment on the long-term leasing ban around Chaco. The proposed change would not affect existing leases or drilling rights, according to Interior, and would not apply to minerals on private, state or tribal lands.

Biden administration officials also said Monday that they intend to prioritize improving public safety for Native Americans through new federal action. For years, tribes across the country have been seeking help with unsolved killings and missing persons cases within their jurisdictions. About 1,500 American Indian and Alaskan Natives have been reported missing and entered into the National Crime Information Center database, according to Interior, along with an additional 2,700 recorded cases of killings.

Biden’s executive order directs the Justice, Interior and Homeland Security departments to review federal and tribal law enforcement problems that hamper investigations involving killings or the missing. Within 240 days, the agencies are expected to provide guidance that will help tribal police respond to cases and work with federal authorities.

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