Biden to limit new oil and gas drilling at Native American site

At a White House summit meeting, President Joe Biden is set to unveil billions of dollars in new infrastructure and social and public safety programmes for US tribes.

Indigenous environmental activists protested in front of the White House on October 11, 2021 [File: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

President Joe Biden is set to unveil a plan on Monday to prevent new oil and gas drilling around one the largest and most valuable Native American sites in the United States.

Biden is directing the US Department of the Interior to begin a process that would prevent oil and gas drilling on federal lands within a 16km (10-mile) radius of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, according to a White House statement.

The president is scheduled to participate in a summit meeting with more than 570 tribal leaders from around the US at the White House on Monday. The Chaco Canyon oil and gas restrictions are part of a wider set of policy moves being announced at the gathering, which aims to support US Native Americans.

Oil and gas drilling policy in the US has emerged as an increasing friction point between industry, Indigenous leaders, and environmentalists as the Biden administration seeks to address climate change by limiting fossil fuel emissions while still meeting US energy needs.

Chaco Canyon was the centre of a flourishing Pueblo civilisation in the period of years 850 to 1250 AD. Quarrying sandstone and harvesting timber from long distances, the Indigenous peoples built large and architecturally complex structures.

“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,” US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement.

Haaland, a former environmental activist from New Mexico, is the first Native American to serve as Interior Department secretary in US history.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest archeological site at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, where Biden is moving to limit oil and gas development [File: Cedar Attanasio/AP Photo]

Also on Monday, the White House is expected to announce the establishment of a first-ever Native American advisory council to the Interior Department secretary.

Pueblo people and tribes in Arizona and New Mexico have long raised concerns about encroaching oil and gas development around Chaco Canyon that threaten sacred and cultural sites, the White House said.

The Chaco Canyon area includes important archaeological finds that are among the most significant, intact signs of Native American culture prior to European colonisation beginning in the 1500s.

The US Congress has taken a number of steps in recent years to prevent new leasing in the area for oil and gas development.

Now the Interior Department will begin consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of lands within 16km (10 miles) of the park from new federal oil and gas leasing and development, the White House said.

Biden’s order is not a complete ban on oil and gas drilling in the area. The proposed withdrawal would not apply to individual allotments of mineral rights already owned by private, state or Tribal entities, according to the White House.

Members of the Navajo tribe, the US’s largest, had urged federal authorities not to prevent individual Navajo from gaining an important source of income from drilling in the buffer zone around the park.

“There doesn’t appear to be a scientific or environmental rationale for that 10-mile radius,” Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told The New York Times (paywall), which first reported the news.

Environmentalists and Native American tribes are concerned about air pollution and wastewater leaks from unchecked oil and gas development in New Mexico [File: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo]

“Given the role that oil and gas plays in the economy of that area, we shouldn’t have an arbitrary number that would limit economic opportunities, perhaps the only economic opportunities, in that part of the state,” McEntyre said.

The remote 12,140-hectare (30,000-acre) Chaco Canyon park was established in the US state of New Mexico by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Chaco Canyon is considered one of the best places in the US for stargazing because of the dark night skies free from light pollution.

Biden is announcing plans to invest billions of dollars in new infrastructure and social and public safety programmes for US tribes, including taking steps to enforce better federal recognition of historic treaty rights.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies