Trump administration to hold 'virtual meetings' on oil drilling - but tribes affected have limited internet
The Trump administration is pushing ahead with plans for oil and gas drilling in New Mexico by holding “virtual” public meetings – despite many of the tribal communities that the decisions could affect having no access to the internet and facing serious threat from the coronavirus.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), is holding a series of Zoom meetings from tomorrow on proposals for fossil fuel extraction in the northwest region of the state, including an area around Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.
The Chaco Canyon region is home to thousands of sacred, ancestral sites of indigenous peoples including the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The BLM “Farmington Mancos-Gallup Management Plan” involves 4.1m acres and proposes up to 3,200 oil and gas wells in the next 15 years.
“BLM’s environmental impact statement predicts that 75,000 acres will be disturbed over the next two decades, 60% of which will remain disturbed by the end of the project,” the Union of Concerned Scientists noted.
The Bureau's decision to move forward during the unprecedented Covid-19 public health crisis also comes following a glut of oil production which caused prices to plummet.
Public meetings are part of the democratic process of decision-making when it comes to public lands. The five virtual meetings will take place from Thursday until Monday. Members of the public have until 28 May to register their comments.
BLM will accept opinions via email, Greenwire reported, a move which also requires internet access.
BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, William Perry Pendley, described online meetings over the oil drilling proposals as a way “to reduce our carbon footprint”.
BLM did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Independent.
A Federal Communications Commission report found that less than half of households on tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Gathering in homes which do have internet access would require ignoring public health guidelines for social distancing.
In northwest New Mexico, communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, face serious threat from the coronavirus. The Navajo Nation, home to an estimated 170,000 people, has more coronavirus cases per head than any state in the US.
For the first time in the US, Doctors Without Borders – which typically operates in war zones – has sent a team to the Navajo Nation.
Jean Stowell, head of the organisation’s US Covid-19 Response Team, told CBS News that nine medical and public health workers have been sent to the hard-hit region.
Stowell said: “Situationally, the Native American communities are at a much higher risk for complications from COVID-19 and also from community spread because they don’t have access to the variety of things that make it possible to self-isolate… You can’t expect people to isolate if they have to drive 100 miles to get food and water."
Native American communities have high rates of underlying conditions such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, increased risk factors for Covid-19. Additionally, around one-third of the Navajo Nation do not have access to running water.
There has been outrage over the BLM decision from conservationists and public officials.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso said earlier this month that the Covid-19 pandemic had prevented them from being able to engage fully in the process.
“The Navajo Nation Council is closed down until further notice. That basically prevents the Nation from adequately interacting with the Department of Interior on this Resource Management Plan amendment,” he said.
“Nature has no boundaries. Air has no boundaries. We are all connected, in this aspect. We ask everybody to help get this comment period delayed.”
In a statement to The Independent, Emily Wolf, program coordinator for New Mexico, at the National Parks Conservation Association wrote: "Much of the land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park that is at risk holds sacred importance to tribal communities. For the Interior Department to hold Zoom meetings about these plans knowing that many tribes lack broadband connections and are busy battling the covid-19 cases is absurd.
"The Interior has to pause the process until it can do it democratically. The whole point of these public meetings is to allow the public to have their say about what happens to public land, and that clearly can’t happen in virtual meetings."
Representative Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico, wrote in the Albuquerque Journal that BLM’s plan “puts cultural sites at risk and ignores the long-standing demands from tribal leaders, the governor, the entire congressional delegation, the state land commissioner and communities in the area for protections”.
She added: “It is insulting, particularly to Native communities and those in rural parts of New Mexico during a global pandemic, to shove through a planning process that will shape how these irreplaceable lands and cultural icons are managed for decades. It is imperative that tribes, local leaders and people across the state make their voices heard.”
Rep. Haaland and fellow congressional members had asked DOI secretary David Bernhardt to extend the public comment period by 120 days but received no response.
This story was updated later on 13 May to include a statement from BLM spokesman Derrick Henry.
He told The Independent: "It is important to maintain a capable and functioning government during the COVID-19 outbreak. To achieve this, the BLM is exercising its technology capabilities where possible to ensure connection and service to the public, and to limit the exposure of our employees and the public we serve.
"Conducting virtual public meetings to gather input on the Farmington RMP ensures the safety of communities and provides interested citizens with an opportunity to get information from their homes. This process is more efficient, will not be impacted due to weather, and allows us to reach a much broader audience than we would through the in-person meetings.
"Additionally, the BLM will be offering a telephone-only option for these public meetings. The telephone-only option is specifically intended to meet the needs of individuals who may not have access to internet. To clarify, the comment period commenced on Feb. 28, 2020, and will conclude on May 28, 2020."