As communities across New Mexico deal with the deadly coronavirus pandemic, the federal government is attempting a massive land grab, offering millions of acres of public land near Chaco Canyon National Historic Park to oil and gas drillers for fracking. This plan has been slowed down before, but it needs to be stopped entirely.
In February, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released its long-awaited draft Resource Management Plan Amendment. Instead of protecting public lands and natural resources, it essentially rubber-stamps 3,000 new fracking wells, some in areas already heavily burdened by fossil fuel development and the resulting pollution. This amendment blatantly ignores the cumulative impacts of fracking on the region, nearby communities and the climate.
New Mexico’s air and water are already threatened by fossil fuel drilling, and more fracking means more emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. Some of the most heartbreaking impacts can be seen near Chaco Canyon, where breathtaking archeological sites provide a glimpse into 11th-century life. The Chaco area is a sacred place and ancestral homeland of Pueblo, Navajo, Hopi and Zuni people.
To residents of the Navajo Nation, this land is home, but to the oil and gas industries, this is land to exploit. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the Bureau of Land Management tried to conduct “virtual” public hearings on its fracking plan. This drew swift criticism across the state, with leaders like U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall condemning the move. The vast majority of Navajo Nation homes lack high-speed internet access, which means community members, already struggling with a deadly virus, could not meaningfully participate in hearings about a drilling plan that would bring more pollution into their region.
Under pressure from the New Mexico Congressional delegation and the Greater Chaco Coalition made up of indigenous groups and environmental organizations (of which Food & Water Action is a part), the Interior Department agreed to extend the comment period last spring.
While winning an extension was important, it is winding down this month. And our real goal is not merely to delay this awful drilling plan. What we need is an entirely new plan that protects our land, air, water and people. That would include a new environmental impact statement that properly considers all of the research documenting the impacts of fracking on community health.
Instead of handing over public lands to the failing fracking industry, we should support those fighting to protect regional communities and sacred sites from destruction and preserving access to the groundwater necessary for life. Thousands of new fracking wells means billions of gallons of water will be wasted on drilling for fossil fuels. That drilling will create billions of gallons of toxic, potentially radioactive wastewater — which the oil and gas companies want to treat and use it to irrigate crops.
We know that fracking causes serious health problems for people living near wells, including increased rates of asthma, migraines, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders. Recent research even shows a link between low-birth-weight babies and mothers who live near wells. Tribal communities have been forced to bear the burdens of fossil fuel exploitation. If we are serious about fighting for environmental justice, this must stop. There is no better time than right now and no better place than Chaco Canyon.
Margaret Wadsworth is a New Mexico-based senior organizer with the advocacy group Food & Water Action.