Grijalva, Haaland Sharply Question Sec. Bernhardt, BLM Director Pendley’s Choice to Drill Sacred Sites During Coronavirus Pandemic

April 30, 2020
Press Release

Washington, D.C. Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Vice Chair Deb Haaland (D-N.M) today strongly criticized the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) efforts to open sacred tribal lands in New Mexico to new oil and gas extraction during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last night via press release that it would not extend the public comment period for updates to the Farmington Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan. The plan updates will determine the management of 4.1 million acres of land in Northern New Mexico, including culturally significant lands and resources around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sacred homeland for many regional tribes.

BLM will instead host virtual public forums less than two weeks before finalizing plan updates. Native American reservations have limited broadband internet access and inconsistent capacity to connect with agencies virtually.

BLM’s selected plan alternatives would provide minimal protection for the tribal cultural and historical resources around Chaco Canyon. They fall far short of the ten-mile protective buffer that was included in a bill the House passed last fall.

New Mexico is under strict stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, which are widely expected to extend at least until the middle of next month. The northwestern corner of the state, the area impacted by DOI’s drilling plans, is a coronavirus hotbed. Native communities in New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation, are combating the coronavirus public health crisis, and in mid-April more than 30 percent of New Mexico’s coronavirus cases were concentrated in Native communities.

“Secretary Bernhardt and Acting Director Pendley are using this crisis to hand our public lands over to the oil and gas industry, and are silencing communities in the process,” Grijalva said today. “Native Americans are contracting and dying from coronavirus at an alarming rate and the Trump administration should be working to make sure they have the resources they need to stop deaths, not keep drilling at record speed. The government’s coronavirus response is a matter of life and death in Indian Country, and the Trump administration is simply failing the American people. Communities want their lands, waters, and health protected, not polluted with impunity.”

“Everyone whose air will be polluted, water put at risk, and health impacted by leasing should have their input considered when these decisions are made, but the BLM’s announcement to have virtual public meetings on their plan to allow leases near Chaco Canyon is unworkable for families who will be impacted,” said Rep. Haaland. “Many folks near the Chaco region live in areas without internet access. By moving forward, the Department is failing to fulfill its trust and treaty obligations to Native Americans, and it is failing to protect a national treasure. Instead of disenfranchising entire communities, Secretary Bernhardt should heed the New Mexico delegation and All Pueblo Council of Governors’ requests to extend the comment period to allow sufficient time for comments after the threat of the pandemic has passed.” 

In April, Grijalva, Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Vice Chair Haaland, and Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chair Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) held a Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Santa Fe to hear directly from communities impacted by the dangerous levels of methane pollution in northern New Mexico from heavy oil and gas development. The lawmakers inspected oil and gas sites and toured Chaco Canyon Culture National Historic Park to hear from local indigenous leaders who support efforts to limit drilling near sacred land.

In June, the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a legislative hearing in Washington, D.C. on H.R. 2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which withdraws federal land around New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future oil and gas leasing. The legislation passed the House in October.