Biden Plans to Bar New Drilling Around a Major Native American Cultural Site
WASHINGTON — President Biden will announce on Monday that his administration is moving to block new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the nation’s oldest and most culturally significant Native American sites, according to White House officials.
The announcement is to come as Mr. Biden hosts a tribal nations summit meeting at the White House at which, administration officials said, he will also highlight steps that he has taken to improve public safety and justice for Native Americans.
The move to restrict fossil fuel drilling around a major Native American site dovetails two of Mr. Biden’s top policy priorities: addressing climate change and injustices against Native Americans.
Although Mr. Biden has pushed an ambitious climate agenda, he has come under fierce criticism from Native American environmental activists for his administration’s approval of Line 3, a $9 billion pipeline that would carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil through Minnesota’s delicate watersheds and tribal lands.
The administration’s move to protect Chaco Canyon and the area around it, known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, comes in direct response to years of tribal requests.
The Chaco Canyon park, an area of roughly 30,000 acres in the high desert mesas of northwest New Mexico, was established in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is home to a vast network of pre-Columbian ruins. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, the area was home to a large, complex society of Pueblo culture, with multiple settlements of multistory houses and sacred sites. But for the past decade, Pueblo and other Native groups have expressed concerns that oil and gas development was encroaching on the borders of the park.
While Congress has enacted some short-term drilling bans around the park, there has been no long-term or permanent policy to block drilling at its edges.
Enacting the new plan to protect the area around Chaco Canyon will be Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary. Ms. Haaland, a former environmental activist, is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, a sovereign nation near Albuquerque.
“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,” Ms. Haaland said. “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.”
The step is likely to generate significant pushback from Republicans and from New Mexico’s oil and gas industry, particularly at a moment when oil and gas prices have surged to five-year highs. The administration has also recently proposed tough new regulations on oil and gas producers.
“There doesn’t appear to be a scientific or environmental rationale for that 10-mile radius,” said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association. “And given the role that oil and gas plays in the economy of that area, we shouldn’t have an arbitrary number that would limit economic opportunities, perhaps the only economic opportunities, in that part of the state.”
“No one is saying that we want to develop inside the park or that we need to be directly inside its boundaries,” Mr. McEntyre added. “But the 10-mile number appears to be arbitrary. Especially over such a long period that could have generational consequences.”
In the coming weeks, administration officials said, the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, will publish a notice in the Federal Register that will initiate the process of banning new oil and gas leases on federal land in the 10-mile radius around Chaco Culture National Historical Park for a period of 20 years.
The proposal will first be subject to a public comment period, environmental analysis and formal tribal consultation. The ban would not affect existing valid leases or rights and would not apply to oil, gas or other minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities.