September 24, 2023
The Navajo Nation is aggressively pushing back against the Biden administration's 20-year ban on new oil and gas leasing near an Indigenous cultural site in New Mexico.

Leaders of the Navajo Nation, a federally-recognized tribe in the southwest, are heavily criticizing the Biden administration for its action last week banning oil and gas leasing impacting their citizens.

In a highly-anticipated action last week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland finalized a ban on fossil fuel leasing within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park located near San Juan County, New Mexico. While she said the move would protect the sacred and culturally significant site, Navajo leaders have argued it will wreak economic devastation on tribal members who rely on leasing the land for income.

“I really am emotionally distraught for our constituents that have been impacted by this,” Brenda Jesus, who chairs Navajo Nation Council’s Resources & Development Committee, told Fox News Digital in an interview. 

“Since I’ve entered the legislative body for my Navajo people, I’ve listened to a lot of constituents out in that area and, you know, it’s just emotional distress, psychologically as well, that they’ve talked about this – it really disturbs me to know how much more of a hardship that these folks are going to be experiencing out there,” she said.


Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

“Today marks an important step in fulfilling President Biden’s commitments to Indian Country by protecting Chaco Canyon, a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors have called this place home since time immemorial,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Friday. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

On Wednesday, Jesus led a delegation of Navajo tribal leaders who met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, making their case against the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) action and for a compromise solution. The tribe previously backed a five-mile buffer zone to protect the site while ensuring future drilling on oil-rich allotments. 

Navajo Nation leaders have also warned that the federal government failed to properly consult them on the action. They said Haaland never seriously considered their compromise solution and potentially neglected her legal duty to protect rights of Navajo allottees.

“The proper government-to-government tribal consultation has never really taken place at all,” Jesus told Fox News Digital. “We’re just really advocating on behalf of our constituents. That wasn’t really considered – tribal sovereignty.”


Overall, the ban amounts to a withdrawal of approximately 336,404 acres of public lands from mineral leasing near Chaco Canyon site.

There are currently 53 Indian allotments located in the so-called 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon, generating $6.2 million per year in royalties for an estimated 5,462 allottees, according to Navajo Nation data. In addition, there are 418 unleased allotments in the zone that are associated with 16,615 allottees. 

According to the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group that represents oil and gas producers in the area, Navajo members will lose an estimated $194 million over the 20 years the action is in place.

New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park

An archeological site is photographed at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Aug. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)

“A lot of the allottees themselves rely on these royalties for their livelihood,” Carlyle Begay, the federal and state government affairs adviser for the Navajo Nation Council, told Fox News Digital. “Instead of providing our communities and these people directly the opportunity to provide for themselves, they are providing no solutions in how these families are going to compensate for these income losses.”

In addition, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren blasted Haaland for announcing the leasing ban on Treaty Day, which celebrates the signing of the 1868 treaty that formally began the government-to-government relationship between U.S. and the Navajo Nation.

“The Secretary’s action undermines our sovereignty and self-determination,” Nygren said in a statement. “Despite my concerns and denunciation, the Department of Interior has moved forward, which is highly disappointing. Secretary Haaland’s decision impacts Navajo allottees but also disregards the tribe’s choice to lease lands for economic development.” 


He added that the decision “jeopardizes future economic opportunities” and places thousands of Navajo allottees in “dire financial constraints.”

Troy Eid, a lawyer who represents Navajo Nation allottees and a former U.S. attorney who was appointed to chair the federal Indian Law and Order Commission, said his clients were prepared to file a lawsuit against Haaland over the action. 

“These are among some of the poorest zip codes in the United States. The secretary has decided to steal their mineral rights and it is theft,” Eid told Fox News Digital in an interview. “These are rights that were guaranteed to them by federal law in the Hoover administration and the very opening months of the Roosevelt administration – these allotments.” 

“This order to withdraw land in violation of a Navajo Nation compromise that has been out there for at least two and a half years to come up with a buffer zone that will work for everybody is absolutely outrageous,” he continued. “The secretary chose to do this on Treaty Day, our Navajo Nation holiday. She’s looking at a lawsuit that I think she’s going to have to take very seriously.”

Carlsbad, New Mexico oil jack pump drilling rig

A pump jack operates in New Mexico. According to the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group that represents oil and gas producers in the area, Navajo members will lose an estimated $194 million over the 20 years the action is in place. (REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo)

While DOI stated Friday that the action won’t impact existing leases or production on those leases, Eid and other opponents of the buffer zone said it would indirectly make Indian-owned allotments worthless. 

Because drilling on the Navajo allotments requires horizontal crossings that pass through federal land impacted by the ban, the action effectively ends all drilling in the area, he said.


“If they ban land development on all federal land, you can’t have any more continued developments on our parcels. You wind that down, they would get lease payments for the duration of the leases that they have now, but they could no longer get royalties under what she’s done,” Eid told Fox News Digital.

“The bulk of the compensation that they earn right now – they, the allottees – from their mineral rights are royalties paid by the companies that are developing the oil and have been, for the most part, since the 1950s. There won’t be any new development,” he added. “There’ll be no economic reason or ability for companies to develop the land.”

The allotments date back to the early 1900s, when the federal government awarded them to Navajo citizens as a consolation when the tribe’s territory was downsized.

Harriet Hageman hearing

Rep. Harriet Hageman said she was prepared to fight Secretary Haaland’s action. (Fox News Digital)

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, said Haaland’s action was part of the Biden administration’s broader climate change agenda and argued Chaco Canyon is already protected. Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., who chairs a House panel on Indian affairs, said it represented a “taking” of tribal lands and vowed congressional action.


“This afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with Navajo tribal leaders and discuss Chaco Canyon and Secretary Haaland’s radical activist decision to create an arbitrary buffer zone around this national park,” Hageman told Fox News Digital on Wednesday, “a decision that should rightfully lie with Congress, not the Department of Interior.”

“This buffer amounts to a taking of Navajo land, creating economic hardship that will ultimately take money away from much-needed education, medical and infrastructure projects – an estimated $1 billion in revenue,” she continued. “The secretary has made this cruel decision without ever speaking with tribal leaders or allottees. We will do whatever we can to stop this taking – whether through my subcommittee or the upcoming appropriations process.”

The DOI declined to comment.