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House Dems insist oil ban is in native tribe’s best interest despite its leaders saying otherwise

Navajo Nation's president said he's "heard directly from the Navajo people who feel that they are not being heard, and that their fears for their livelihoods are not being addressed." 

Published: July 14, 2023 6:21pm

Updated: July 14, 2023 7:43pm

Residents of New Mexico’s Navajo Nation tribe are outraged following President Biden’s ban on oil and gas drilling in their area, but House Democrats dispute this and continue to insist the move is in the tribe's best interest.

Last month, Biden ordered a 20-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Canyon’s National Historical Park. The decision drew outrage from many Navajos, prompting some to blockade an entrance to the park, keeping Biden’s Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, from reaching an event to celebrate.

On Thursday, the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee held a hearing on a recently introduced bill by Arizona Republican Congressmen Eli Crane and Paul Gosar to "nullify" the ban. Several Navajo Nation council members, including President Buu Nygren, argued the rule harms surrounding communities' livelihoods that "rely heavily" on the leasing.

But despite Navajo disapproval, Democrats in the hearing claimed the ban was in their best interest. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the ban helps "protect Chaco Canyon from further fossil fuel development."

The ban was enacted to preserve the "integrity of sacred sites in and around" Chaco, AOC claimed, adding she is "strongly" against the bill to reverse the moratorium.

In his opening remarks, President Nygren appeared to rebut AOC’s argument, saying Navajos "take our role as stewards of Chaco Canyon very seriously."

"We have preserved and protected Chaco Canyon since our ancestors' time, well before the park was created," and the Navajo Nation government is in the "best position to know what is best" for its citizens.

Nada Wolff Culver, who serves as Biden’s Deputy Director of Policy and Programs for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), also spoke at the hearing in support of the ban. In her testimony, she argued the Biden administration has been consulting with tribes in the area going back to 2021.

Nygren, however, claimed the rule was finalized "without meaningful consultation, and fails to honor the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty." 

The Navajo Nation tried to "compromise" with Biden, but was "rejected with inadequate explanation from the administration."

"I heard directly from the Navajo people who feel that they are not being heard, and that their fears for their livelihoods are not being addressed." 

The buffer zone, he added, "negatively affects" tens of thousands of allottees.

Delora Hesuse, a Navajo tribal member, alleged Sec. Haaland "promised to listen" to their concerns and give them a "stronger role" in rule-making, but "did not listen" nor "consult with" them on a compromise, which she said involved reducing the 10-mile radius to a 5-mile one.

Tribal members, including herself, have had their "sole means of modest income from oil and gas payments … de facto stripped away" by the public land order, Hesuse went on to claim.

Navajo Allottee Spokesperson Mario Atencio dissented from his Navajo colleagues, however, and argued the order is necessary to preserve Chaco’s environment.

Rep. Crane, who represents over half the Navajo tribes, which extend to Arizona, lamented in the hearing that "all private landowners and Navajo Allottees" are "effectively" barred from leasing areas, and claimed dire economic consequences would follow.

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