(The Center Square) – Members of the Navajo Nation in southeastern U.S. say the federal government is leaving their people behind with its energy policies, crippling their economy and leaving more people in poverty.
Republicans on the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources are attempting to overturn such Biden administration policies, including the Department of Interior’s land withdrawal and ban on oil and gas leasing outside of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where members of the Navajo tribe reside.
The DOI issued a Public Land Order in June imposing a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park for the next 20 years. The prevention of oil and natural gas leasing within the zone would cause Navajo mineral owners to lose an estimated $194.3 million in revenue over the next 20 years.
More than 5,000 Navajo mineral owners rely on income from energy development. The individuals are called Navajo allottees, as the minerals they own were allotted to their ancestors many years ago.
Delora Hesuse, a Nageezi Chapter Navajo who lives within the 10-mile buffer, said in a hearing last week that “this is hugely important because our area is very poor and families still do not have electricity or running water. Our elderly rely on this money to feed their children and livestock.”
Committee Republicans said the land order also would further harm domestic energy efforts.
“The Department of Interior’s decision […] represents Mr. Biden’s latest effort to impose his radical agenda by locking up our nation’s land and water while further crippling domestic energy production and pushing the United States into greater dependence on foreign sources for energy,” Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said in the hearing.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said that the Navajo were placed in an “economic hostage situation,” with the tribe believing that continuing to mine oil and gas is the only source of possible income.
“The answer to that, in my view, is not to revert back to that [oil and gas mining],” Ocasio-Cortez said, “but to invest and reinvest in these communities, particularly where there is harm being done.”
She asked if there were other steps the federal government could take to better support the Navajo people through an energy transition.
Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, responded that such a discussion should have happened before the decision to restrict oil and gas leasing within the buffer zone was made.
“I did not even know about the announcement or anything from the secretary,” Nygren said, “but my hope was that we were going to have these discussions to come up with a collective solution.”
Western Energy Alliance, a group that represents 200 companies centered on exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the West, said the Biden administration’s policies, with no plan to address the obvious fallout, will lead to more poverty among the Navajo tribe.
Aaron Johnson, vice president of Public and Legislative Affairs for the alliance, said, “Rep. Ocasio-Cortez assumes an energy transition for the Navajo Nation that doesn’t exist. As President Buu Nygren said, such a transition isn’t happening now nor will it in the foreseeable future. The Interior Secretary’s ten-mile buffer around Chaco Canyon will lead to more poverty in a disadvantaged community by denying nearly $200 million in oil and natural gas revenue for Navajo members. Meanwhile, tribal wind and solar royalties are nonexistent.”
“According to Interior’s own data, under the Biden Administration tribal oil production is down 21% and natural gas is down 11%,” Johnson continued. “They’re working to reduce sustained energy income to tribes into the future by choking new permits back 60%. Congress should reverse Interior’s withdrawal and allow Navajos to earn an income and support their families by developing their energy resources.”
Nygren also spoke on one of the tribe’s biggest and cleanest coal plants, the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, being decommissioned in December 2019.
“The promise was solar fields down the road,” Nygren said, “but now nothing exists. People are out of jobs. There’s no royalties, no taxes, so I truly agree with having a transition plan that’s equitable and that plan was never presented to me, it was just a decision that was made.”
Nygren said the lack of compromise and communication from the federal government led to the opposition to the DOI’s land order.
“The withdrawal was done without meaningful consultation and fails to honor the Navajo Nation sovereignty,” he said. “Respect for tribal sovereignty must be consistent, even when it is not convenient. The nation offered a compromise that honored Navajo sovereignty and the rights of our allottees, but that was rejected with inadequate explanation from the administration.”
The tribe had previously offered a five-mile buffer zone compromise that helped protect the park and enable Navajo mineral owners to develop most of their resources but revoked it after DOI Secretary Deb Haaland failed to conduct “sufficient tribal consultation.”
“I feel like as the Navajo Nation president I’m the one that has to figure out that solution,” Nygren said about the recent federal actions. “I feel like I’ve inherited the issue and the only way to get it done is through Congress or the secretary, but in the meantime it’s a problem of the Navajo Nation president and the Navajo Nation council.”
In response to the DOI’s order, the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources discharged the Energy Opportunities for All Act last week, which would nullify the Interior Department’s decision. The discharge essentially means that the bill is now ready to begin floor proceedings.
“The House Committee on Natural Resources is keeping our commitment to the American people by working to lower energy costs and support tribal rights by promoting access to our nations natural resources,” Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said in a statement.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., has not yet announced an official floor time for consideration of the bill.