Navajo Allottees Not Represented At Congressional Field Hearing, Want Mineral Development To Continue Near Chaco Culture Park

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Mineral Rights
Mineral Rights

Navajo allottees who privately own rights to minerals expressed concern about being shutout from a Congressional field hearing in New Mexico on Monday that explored legislation to create a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Members of the House Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing in Santa Fe on the impact of oil and gas drilling on tribal lands and near the Chaco Culture park located in the San Juan Basin, which covers most of the northwest portion of the state and forms the mineral rights for many members of the Navajo Nation. Lawmakers also toured Chaco Culture National Historic Park while in New Mexico.

The hearing was led by Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chair Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), and included members of the New Mexico delegation Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland.

Testimony at the hearing included Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who said she wanted her state “to be a model” in transitioning to renewable energy and re-gaining alleged lost revenues from methane emissions.

The hearing included a panel of tribal leaders from the region, including Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer who told the committee “if there is increased oil and gas development in the Chaco region, there will be increased risk for disturbance of the structures and artifacts,” He argued that his members needed better regulations to increase protections for the residents and to preserve cultural heritage sites.

But Lizer and other the tribal leaders did not represent many Navajo allottees who hold mineral rights of their own within the proposed 10-mile buffer surrounding Chaco Canyon and want to encourage development of oil and gas resources.

“Everyone is making us out to look bad because we have the opportunity to use our allotment,” said Delora Hesuse, a Navajo with private mineral rights allotted to her ancestors.

“We all play our part, though. We all have the same needs and we are all concerned about what’s happening with the water and the air, all issues,” she said, with other tribal members and outside environmental groups casting them as “the bad guys who are leasing our allotments for development.”

Hesuse and other allottees are governed by Federal Indian Mineral Office (FIMO), established by the Department of the Interior “to provide and improve Indian Trust services to individual Indian beneficiaries in the management of their oil and gas mineral resources.” The agency partners with BLM to inspect oil and gas lease lands allotted to Native Americans beginning in the late 18th century through treaties.

Following the Civil War, the federal government ramped up allotting lands, passing remnants of earlier reservations directly to individual “members of affected tribes.” Tens of thousands of acres are included in the historical allotments.

“We assume as allottees that the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and FIMO look over us,” Hesuse told Western Wire. She supports efforts to highlight safety and increase information flows, especially to allottees like herself.

Hesuse said the disparaging attacks and accusations that allottees do not care about the environment, for example, are the most hurtful.

“It really makes it feel like we don’t even know what we’re doing, to be honest,” she said. “When we leased our allotments, my family, Sam Comanche’s heirs, we had a number of meetings. We didn’t do it as just one land owner. We all got together and decided, including what company to go to,” Hesuse said.

Companies competed for the allotments, she added, but the buffer zone issue was not included in the past.

The New Mexico Congressional delegates have pushed legislation that would create a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park and ban drilling or other mineral production from adjacent federally-controlled lands.

When it came time for the Congressional tour, the allottees were left behind, and excluded from any type of meet-and-greet with tribal officials, members of Congress, or others. She said her own tribal leaders did not solicit input or reach out about concerns in the lead up to the field hearing.

“How come we don’t have a voice in this?” Hesuse asked.

Within 24 hours of the field hearing Hesuse reported fielding calls from fellow allottees on being left out of the decision-making process and what the future might hold. Giving the companies permission to develop, including through the relevant BIA agencies, does not seem to be enough, with “environmentalists coming in and taking over our rights.”

Even though the federal buffer legislation would not apply to private, state, or tribally-owned entities like Hesuse and other allottees, she argued that her lands are “right in the middle for development.”

“When the companies go out to develop, they’re not going to use just one allotment land. They need all the other lands nearby,” she said. “If the BLM decides not to conduct any more lease sales, that means the people, the allottees in the area, are not going to get to the next stage of development.”

“Don’t we have a say-so in this?” Hesuse pleaded. For now, her allotment has been leased to Enduring Resources, and is located near the Chaco Culture Historical Park. Hesuse lives in Nageezi, San Juan County, New Mexico. Her family has been a leader not just as a voice for allottees’ rights, but in ensuring companies hold up their end of the agreements and conform to regulations.

But moving to production has been difficult given the outsize influence of outside groups claiming to work on Hesuse’s and other tribal members’ behalf.

“Environmentalists keep filing lawsuits against applications to drill,” she said. The lawsuits have forced BLM to reconsider lease sale parcels, and communications have broken down.

Hesuse said she was “surprised” by the alleged findings of the Congressional field hearing, including the use of infrared cameras to detect emissions.

“If they saw these [emissions] through their camera, and it pertains to our lands near the buffer zone, how come the environmentalists and the members of Congress did not approach us allottees to support our cause and show us what they found?” Hesuse said.

Her fellow allottees were passed over for tribal leaders and environmental activists and not included in the panel discussions at the field hearings.

“We oppose the buffer zone because it’s never been an issue. Everyone knew their boundaries,” Hesuse said. She said residents near Chaco have been receiving royalties since the 1970s and they don’t want that critical income to go away.

“It’s going to really have an impact” if development is not allowed to occur, she argues. The mineral royalties have allowed the local residents to “better themselves” with vehicles and better homes, and to support the education of their children. “It really helps financially,” she added, offering a final question, “Why are they wanting to take our resources away?”

Hesuse made the roughly 150-mile drive to Santa Fe and the hearing on Monday, despite being left out of the proceedings. She said she did so to make a point and raise questions about why Navajo allottees like her were left out and to ensure that the voices of those allottees near the possible buffer zone want their rights to “go to the next level” and be developed.

Hesuse posed her question at the press conference to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján who represents New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District and much of the Navajo Nation and other Native Americans in the northern part of the state.

Ultimately, she said, “we need to be listened to. We need to be heard.”

Environmentalists and others claiming to speak on their behalf have “not even consulted us or asked our permission,” Hesuse said. She added that occasionally, groups or individuals claiming to have observed spills or captured other information are likely trespassing on allottee land.

Hesuse said that seeking measurements or samples should be straightforward and permission should routinely be sought. Instead, allottees are avoided.

Hesuse said that some of her fellow allottees, including herself, believed that panelists like Kendra Pinto, a member of Counselor Chapter of Navajo Nation who spoke Monday, should not be testifying or claiming to speak on her behalf, as she is not an allottee owner in her own right.

“Since it’s our allotment, we have the patents to it, and we do most of our own decisions on our allotments,” Hesuse said.

In November 2018 Hesuse joined other Navajo allottees in an amici curiae brief supporting the Interior Department and their developer, Enduring Resources, to defend 382 applications for permit to drill (APD) in disputed areas.

“As allottees, we are beneficial owners of lands held in trust for us by the United States, and we are entitled to royalties for any oil and gas development on those lands. We rely on these royalties to meet the daily needs of our families,” lawyers for the allottees wrote.

“The Nageezi region is poor and isolated, accessible only by dirt roads and with little economic activity. Royalties from oil and gas development bring much needed cash and opportunity to the region, and are strongly supported by the local community. Petitioners, particularly Diné Citizens against Ruining our Environment, attempt to portray this litigation as a fight between the Navajo people and big business, but they do not speak for the Indian allottees who live and work in the Nageezi region, who overwhelmingly support the proposed drilling,” they continued.

“Our perspective is as allottees who live within the landscape of our ancestors, who own mineral interests that we want developed and who have actively participated in the federal planning and environmental reviews for the development of our mineral interests,” they added.

The Nageezi Chapter of the Navajo Nation has passed declarations of support of development.

In those resolutions, Nageezi residents and other Navajo allottees were particularly opposed to the intrusion by “self-serving special interest organizations” from outside the area.

“Navajo Allotment Land Owners are concerned that self-serving special interest organizations are violating the rights of Navajo Allotment Land Owners. That such publicized demonstrations and meetings by these special interest and outside groups have over shadowed the Navajo Allotment Land Owners who [are] currently benefitting from oil and gas development on their allotment land,” they wrote, and that they “do not share opinions of environmentalists voicing their objections on natural resources developments.”

That sense of exclusion extends beyond the field hearing, or being overruled by outside voices, Hesuse said.

“We always seem to be outcast,” she said, referring to the “checkerboard” areas of Navajo Nation that dot a considerable portion of western and northwestern New Mexico. Concerns expressed by those in the wider area are often given short shrift—places like Huerfano, Pueblo Pintado, Alamo, or Ramah—when it comes to law enforcement or other issues.

“There’s no fulfillment,” she added. “Broken promises, broken this, broken that.” The level of services provided on the main reservation are not matched in the patchwork of Navajo communities that lie outside those boundaries. Hesuse said that allottees ultimately just want a seat at the table. Any table.

“It was an eye-opener. We really need to meet with them [BIA, FIMO] as well. Maybe sit at the front table” with other allottees discussing matters like leasing agreements, Hesuse said.

“We really need them to fulfill the leasing agreements, the safety issue, and the health issues,” she continued.

FLIR Cameras And Lack Of Disclosure

There is nothing safe about methane waste.

Today, we witnessed the normally invisible air pollution from oil and gas operations near Counselor, NM.#PeopleOverPolluters pic.twitter.com/gwY2o6h7RN

— Natural Resources (@NRDems) April 15, 2019

The members of the Congressional delegation, all Democrats, toured oil and gas operations near Counselor, New Mexico, just down the highway on U.S. 550 from Nageezi.

Accompanied by anti-oil and gas activists with EarthWorks, the legislators used “Forward-Looking Infrared” (FLIR) cameras to attempt to view emissions, a field measurement that Western Wire has previously reported as requiring certified technicians to operate.

An air compliance specialist we spoke to in 2017 said the merely peering through the camera is not enough. There is no way to ascertain what the camera is seeing without additional data.

Trisha Fanning of Eagle Environmental Consulting said that without tests and data that would prove the emissions plumes are methane, other volatile organic compounds, or any other emissions, the imaging the camera provides could be misleading or misinterpreted.

Such camera imaging in Oklahoma, for example, was inconclusive without the confirmation of external data and the proper technical use of the camera. “There’s a lot that can mimic an emissions plume,” Fanning told Western Wire.

On Sunday Grijalva tweeted, “Today in NM, we saw firsthand the dangerous methane pollution that oil & gas companies are releasing into the air. @NRDems & I are committed to reducing poisonous methane emissions, fighting climate change & protecting our clean air. #PeopleOverPolluters.”

During the tour, Grijalva and the other Congressional members were assisted by Sharon Wilson, an activist associated with EarthWorks who compared the technology of hydraulic fracturing to rape in 2015.

Lowenthal later claimed that through the camera, he could see the “entire sky filled with methane gas.”

At the Monday field hearing in Santa Fe, the committee also heard testimony from rancher Don Schreiber. Neither the Congressional committee nor Mr. Schreiber disclosed that he is also a board member of Western Leaders Network, and environmental lobbying group.

As Western Wire reporting has revealed, he did not publicly disclose his affiliation with the group when lobbying Congress on a methane bill in 2016. Western Leaders Network is led by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, who founded and lead Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project.

Email requests for the disclosure statements for all those testifying on Monday have gone unanswered by Democratic staff at the House Natural Resources committee as of this publication.

Schreiber, along with Commissioner Lachelt, has raised money to support increased methane regulations at the state and federal level. However, sources of the group’s funding are not publicly disclosed.

He is typically only described as a “New Mexico resident” or rancher, and his political affiliations and activism are left out of public materials or his own presentations.

Despite his connections to Western Leaders Network, Schreiber claimed to be “terribly disadvantaged” compared to oil and gas companies when it came to resources, with Rep. Haaland asserting that residents like Schreiber were fighting “against all odds.”

“What I would like to take from your question is an admonition or a request that everyone stand and fight, regardless of how disadvantaged you are, regardless of how upside down those odds are,” Schreiber said. “The advances we make by our activism and with your support, I encourage everyone to do that.”

When the Trump administration fails to hold polluters accountable “our family, our friends, our neighbors and rural Americans pay the price.”

Mr. Don Schreiber from Rio Arriba County, NM demands that legislators put #PeopleOverPolluterspic.twitter.com/dGo0BSCOBU

— Natural Resources (@NRDems) April 15, 2019

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