By Joshua Partlow and Darryl Fears
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. And he said his administration would work with tribes to “comprehensively incorporate tribal ecological knowledge into the federal government’s scientific approach.”
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.”
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 reforms to the program. This week the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to sell off more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Beaudreau described the Gulf of Mexico sale as “part of the legacy system that we’re here to reform,” adding the administration was compelled by litigation to move forward on it.
“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 program. both offshore and onshore.”