Insult to Injury: A Shameful Display of Callousness Around Chaco Canyon

By: Rev. Andrew Black

Many have wondered what lengths the Trump administration would go to in its quest to turn our public lands over to oil and gas drilling – satisfying its so-called energy dominance agenda. It seems we have an answer: despite the fact that the Navajo Nation and many tribal communities have been disproportionately hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration is shockingly and shamefully charging ahead with its controversial plans to drill for oil and gas near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with important cultural and sacred significance to the Navajo and Pueblo Nations of New Mexico and beyond.

As many Native communities in New Mexico remain closed and in a state of triage seeking to respond to this terrible and deadly virus, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is moving forward with public meetings and soliciting public comments around oil and gas development near Chaco Canyon. All of this while oil prices have cratered and there is a worldwide glut, with some saying it will be years before balance returns to supply and demand and prices are restored. 

So why the headlong rush into leasing? Rather than ensuring that the Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s tribes have all the resources and support they need to fight this pandemic, the administration remains callously focused on its energy dominance agenda. 

Native communities in New Mexico have been disproportionately hit by the virus, with reports showing that 53% of the people infected in New Mexico are Native Americans, who make up just 10% of our state’s population. Leaders of the Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and members from the New Mexico Congressional delegation have all requested an extension for the comment period so tribal communities can continue to deal with multitude of impacts from this terrible pandemic.

This extension is the very least the federal government can do. Seeking public input to open up Chaco Canyon for energy development during a major health crisis — especially where tribal populations have been disproportionately impacted and where pollution has been shown to exacerbate the virus’ impact on local communities — is beyond tone deaf, it’s injustice. The BLM should extend the comment period on drilling plans that threaten lands sacred to so many of New Mexico’s Native communities until the pandemic is over.

Rather than exercise compassion, BLM’s Acting Secretary William Perry Pendley instead announced that a series of town hall meetings will now be held online. This simply adds insult to injury, as according to the Federal Communications Commission, only 23.9 percent of New Mexicans living on tribal lands have broadband access. (Ironically, Pendley also touts how these virtual meetings – about oil and gas development–will reduce carbon emissions.)

Pushing ahead with virtual meetings that will doubtlessly be sparsely attended during a time when tribal and local communities are experiencing such an overwhelming amount of need, tragic suffering and grieving loss at best appears to be a shameful perpetuation of modern colonialism and at worst smacks of racism. 

The administration’s energy dominance agenda seems to have morphed into the literal:  energy development dominating over all else–including basic decency, compassion and common sense. It’s time for that agenda to end. In this time of great difficulty, this administration needs to delay these meetings and afford New Mexico’s tribes and local communities the time needed to adequately respond to and recover from this major health crisis. 

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