Federal lawmakers ventured thousands of miles to hear from tribal leaders, archaeologists and others Monday as advocates urge Congress to establish greater restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling near ancient Native American cultural sites in the Southwest.
A House subcommittee is exploring the possible effects of air pollution on sacred sites, and its research trip has culminated in a public hearing at the New Mexico Capitol. Oil producers and federal land managers were not scheduled to be part of the panel.
It comes as New Mexico’s all-Democratic congressional delegation is seeking to halt new oil and natural gas lease sales on federal land within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which lawmakers visited Sunday.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has said many tribes that trace their heritage and traditions to Chaco’s ancient stone structures and avenues want to protect a broad swath of territory beyond the national park from damage by energy exploration.
“This landscape is part of our past, our present and our future,” Santa Clara Pueblo tribal Gov. Michael Chavarria told reporters last week. “Until this area is permanently protected, we are living in a state of uncertainty and doubt.”
Oil industry representatives say robust protections already are in place within the national park at Chaco Canyon and that federal authorities require detailed land surveys prior to drilling.
“Those archaeological surveys are baked into the process,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 300 oil and natural gas companies. “Any development on those leases would have to go through cultural surveys as specified under the Natural Historic Preservation Act and other laws.”
Sgamma said she highly doubts the Republican-led U.S. Senate will endorse the buffer zone around the park. She called Monday’s hearing “largely a messaging thing at this point.”
The proposed buffer zone includes a mix of state, federal and tribal land as well as parcels owned by individual Navajos. Some of that land would not fall under the legislation, which calls for tribal autonomy.
There are more than 130 active wells within that area, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
In recent years, federal land managers repeatedly have denied oil and gas leases that fall within the proposed buffer zone.
New Mexico has promised to pursue its own moratorium on oil and gas lease sales on state trust land within the buffer zone, at the direction of Democratic State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.
The Bureau of Land Management is working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on revamping a resource management plan for the broader San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, a prolific production area for natural gas. After years in the making, a draft is expected in a few months.
The partnership between the two agencies was meant to ensure tribes would be consulted and that scientific and archaeological analysis would be done to guarantee cultural sensitivity.