In 2014, after a three-year stint in Chicago during the early years of the frack boom, Pinto, who is in her 30s, returned home to a changed world. By then, petroleum trucks and fracking crews were crawling across the land.
“There was more noise, there was more traffic. What got my blood boiling was when I went on my favorite horse trail from my house. It’s beautiful there. You can see everything — all the way to Fajada Butte in Chaco park. In 2015, they cleared out a big section right in the middle of the trail, five acres. They even cleared the rare Clover’s cactus [a species once proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act].”
Pinto had little recourse. The land behind her house is owned by the BLM. It is a predicament shared by many Diné in the Eastern Agency where land is so divided among federal, state, tribal, and individual Native owners that the region is simply called the Checkerboard. She demanded justice, joined a group called Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (Diné CARE), and eventually found herself testifying before Congress.
Meanwhile, the BLM’s regional office in Farmington saw that it was unprepared for rampant drilling across the Checkerboard’s confused mélange of borders. In 2014, the agency announced a retooling of its overall land management plans (called a Resource Management Plan, or RMP) based on a new environmental impact statement (EIS). It continued to license drilling under the old RMP until the new RMPA (the “A” stands for amendment) could be developed, which proved to be a bad decision.
The BLM’s draft amendment made it clear that the agency has little interest in slowing oil and gas development in the region.
In May 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit responded to a suit brought by environmental organizations, including Diné CARE, and ruled that the BLM was issuing drilling permits in Greater Chaco using obsolete guidelines that failed to consider the cumulative impacts of fracking. Drilling permits were overturned and the court ordered the BLM back to the drawing board, setting a precedent for all future assessments. Native Americans and conservationists thought they had put the brakes on unshackled oil and gas drilling in Greater Chaco. But their hopes were dashed in February this year when the BLM finally released a draft of its long-awaited amendment to the land management plan, the RMPA. The draft made it clear that the agency has little interest in slowing oil and gas development in the region.
The RMPA, originally scheduled for final public hearings this past May, offers five sets of progressively more aggressive development regimes, called “Alternatives.” Environmental and Native rights groups point out that regardless of which Alternative is adopted (and with 92 percent of BLM lands already leased), the new guidelines will allow up to 3,000 more frack wells.
The BLM agrees with that assessment. “That’s accurate across the board for any of the Alternatives,” says Sarah Scott, the BLM’s project manager for the new RMPA. “It varies by 100 or so, but those numbers are correct.”
Critics of the draft plan say it is at odds with the agency’s own initial “scoping report” — based on 10 public meetings from October 2016 to February 2017 — which had promised the RMPA would, among other things, take into account the cumulative impacts from the 37,000 existing oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin region, and address its climate impacts as well as tribal concerns about the Chaco cultural landscape and public health and safety.
As far as Navajo Nation Councilmember Daniel Tso is concerned, the entire 1200-page RMPA is a ruse. “Petroleum engineers, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists submit documents and say, ‘Oh, everything’s fine. We won’t harm anything.’ And it goes through every time. Every time. We’ve made protest comments, but it doesn’t have any effect. It’s been a farce since the 2003 RMP – and the new RMPA is just an amendment.”
Final town hall hearings on the RMPA were rendered impossible by strict stay-at-home health orders in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, but the BLM was undeterred. Rather than postponing last May’s hearings, the agency held them “virtually.” But given the notoriously poor cyber connectivity on the reservation, the very people most affected by the RMPA could barely participate. Most comments came from non-Natives angrily protesting that hearings were being held under such circumstances. Again, the BLM agrees.
“I don’t think we had a great representation from the communities out there,” says Scott, “so I would not base the opinions that we heard during those virtual meetings as a full reflection of how the communities feel that are potentially impacted by the decisions that we’re making.”
After stonewalling a raft of protests from tribal leaders and New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation throughout spring, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt relented in late May and granted a four-month extension of the public comment period until September 25. However, with the Navajo Nation still under a prolonged lockdown and suffering from one of the worst per capita rates of Covid deaths in the US, most of the community has little time or energy to send in their comments. Families are preoccupied with just staying alive and hauling enough water for proper sanitation (only about 70 percent of Diné homes have running water).
According to Scott, additional comments have been forthcoming, but she indicated that such opinions might not have much sway.
“If 500,000 people wrote us a letter and said, ‘We hate Alternative A’— that’s not substantive,” Scott says. To be substantive, she explains, a comment must identify a significant factor that the BLM missed. “Not that we ignore that input, but it’s not taken into consideration to further develop the analysis in the document.”
The agency expects to issue the final approval of the RMPA in early 2021.
DRIVING HIS WHITE PICKUP TRUCK across the bumpy backcountry roads of the Nation’s Counselor Chapter, Daniel Tso points out frack site after frack site, occasionally waving to people at work hauling water or towing livestock wagons behind their pickups. Tso is chair of the council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, and represents several of the Nation’s chapters including Counselor. (Chapters are political subdistricts of the Navajo Nation). As a former rodeo cowboy, he is well known here, but his biggest challenge these days is taming the unharnessed development that is riding roughshod across his community’s lands.