July 5, 2023

A water supply well for Enduring Resources IV, an oil and gas company with drilling rigs around the Chaco Canyon area. Clark Adomaitis / KSUT / KSJD

Navajo people divided over oil and gas moratorium near Chaco Canyon

KSJD | By Clark Adomaitis

On June 2, when US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland approved a moratorium on new oil and gas leases in the region, some Navajo allotment owners rejoiced.

The moratorium is part of an effort to preserve historical sites built centuries ago by ancestral Puebloan people.

“It helps us retain the sacred areas, sacred spaces, and it helps us to have access to practice our way of belief,” says Daniel Tso, a Navajo elder.

Mario Atencio is an environmental activist and an allottee who lives in Counselor, New Mexico. Atencio says oil and gas drilling is damaging the environment around Chaco Canyon. He showed me a spot where a pipe burst a few years ago and caused a large oil spill.

Mario Atencio and Daniel Tso are Navajo allottees based out of the Counselor chapter of the Navajo Nation.Clark Adomaitis / KSUT / KSJD

“53,000 gallons of produce water and crude oil busted out of there. And that retaining wall is actually failing,” said Atencio.

The story of Navajo allotment lands is a complicated one. Navajo people lived on this land intermittently over the past few centuries. They were forcibly removed in the 1800s, then allowed to return. Eventually, some lands were allotted to tribal members in 160-acre parcels.

While allottees own their 160-acre parcels, allotments are held in trust by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. That federal agency oversees leasing for oil and gas development on allotment lands and takes a cut of the royalties.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is the site of ancient Puebloan sacred sites. Clark Adomaitis / KSUT / KSJD

“Anything that is below that allotment land belongs to the Indian people. The United States, for the longest time, would not admit that the Indian people owned those minerals,” said Ervin Chavez, chapter president of the Nageezi chapter of the Navajo Nation. Chavez is part of a group of allottees who oppose the new ban on leasing.

“You will never be a billionaire on oil and gas revenues. If you have something under your land, and you can live off, or make money off, or raise your family, and send them to school, you would use it,” said Chavez.

The Biden administration only banned new leasing on federal land in the region. Allottees can still legally lease their land for development. However, Chavez and other opponents say the ban will kill the oil and gas economy near Chaco Canyon because companies won’t invest in infrastructure like pipelines and compressor stations without federal lands on the table too.

Oil and gas infrastructure fill the landscape around Chaco Canyon, on and off Navajo allotments. Clark Adomaitis / KSUT / KSJD

“You will not find a company that will spend that kind of money to do that. They would go elsewhere. This area is going to be abandoned,” said Chavez.

Opponents have powerful allies in government. The Navajo Nation Council and President Buu Nygren have publicly opposed the ban. President Nygren says the Biden administration’s drilling moratorium on federal lands makes it nearly impossible for Navajo allottees near Chaco to lease their lands.

“These allottees are the closest thing we have to land ownership in Indian country. To do it to them in this manner, which is unjust and unfair to them, is just unbelievable. In this case, you've got over 5000 allottees directly affected financially,” said President Nygren.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior announced a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon Historical Park to stop oil and gas drilling with the goal of protecting the sacred sites and the environment. Clark Adomaitis / KSJD / KSUT

Danny Simpson is a Navajo Nation Councilmember who says the drilling moratorium was pushed by Pueblo tribes. These tribes are descendants of the people who built Chaco but are now located far elsewhere in the state of New Mexico.

“We call it a land grab. The Pueblos says they have ties to this land, and that's wanna have a lot of say on how things are developed in these areas,” said Simpson.

Simpson says the Navajo Nation intends to pursue legal action against the Biden Administration. He offered no details on the legal argument the tribe will make in court if and when it files a lawsuit.