Interior Slow-Walks Lease Sales While Ignoring Tribal Opposition in New Mexico

Interior Sec. Deb Haaland’s Congressional testimony this week suggested that Biden Administration would not be increasing the pace of oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands any time soon, despite Congressional pressure and statutory requirements.

A core issue during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing was the Department of Interior’s continued refusal to hold quarterly lease sales in each state with the resources, as required by law. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) pointed out that since President Biden took office, Interior has only held one lease sale in each applicable state.

When Sen. Barrasso asked Sec. Haaland to commit to holding lease sales each quarter moving forward, the Secretary’s response was noncommittal:

“We have had lease sales, we’ll continue to have lease sales.”

In fact, Interior has not even held the bare minimum of lease sales required by law and has done everything in its power to slow and block lease sales on federal land. The consequences of these efforts were described by the Washington Post in March:

“In his first week in office, Biden paused any new lease sales on federal land. A federal judge overturned that decision, but no onshore lease auctions were held during Biden’s first year in office. The following year, the government offered just 128,511 acres for lease, the fewest in a decade.”

In Sec. Haaland’s home state of New Mexico, the reduction in leasing has been especially stark. The data show that the Biden administration has offered significantly fewer parcels for sale in New Mexico than the past two administrations. In fact, the Biden administration has offered 90.7 percent fewer parcels for sale each year than the Obama administration and 93.7 percent fewer parcels for sale each year than the Trump administration.

Reducing the number and acreage of federal parcels available for oil and natural gas leasing is not the only strategy Interior is using to slow down energy production on federal lands, particularly in New Mexico, which is the largest onshore producer of oil on federal lands.

In 2021, Interior announced a plan to withdraw 351,000 acres of land from oil and natural gas leasing to create a buffer zone surrounding Chaco Canyon, N.M. Since then, Interior has heard fierce pushback from stakeholders on the ground.

While Interior projected that the proposed buffer zone would have a relatively small impact on the output of oil and natural gas companies operating in the region, the proposal would have a disproportionally harmful impact on the local Navajo Nation community. The tribe would lose an estimated $194 million in royalties over the next 20 years if the land is withdrawn from leasing.

This week, the Navajo Nation voted to reject any buffer zone around Chaco Canyon. Previously, the administration had refused to consider a more limited buffer zone proposal put forward by the tribe. In the resolution, the 25th Navajo Nation Council wrote:

“The Chapters recognize the detrimental economic impact to the Navajo allottees should a buffer zone of any size be imposed around Chaco Canyon. If a buffer zone is adopted, the Navajo allottees who rely on the income realized from oil and gas royalties will be pushed into greater poverty.”

While Interior has argued that the proposal would exclude land allotments owned by the tribe, Navajo Nation leaders countered that the buffer zone on federal land would make the privately owned allotments “worthless from the standpoint of energy extraction” due to the cross-jurisdictional horizontal drilling process required to maximize production output in the region.

Although the Navajo Nation has made their position on the buffer zone clear since the proposal was introduced in 2021, during Sec. Haaland’s April testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, she could not identify the economic costs associated with removing access to private mineral rights in the proposed Chaco Canyon buffer zone.

Bottom Line: The Biden Department of Interior’s slow-walking of lease sales and proposed buffer zone around Chaco Canyon undermine national energy security and put at risk revenue dollars that all New Mexicans depend on, including the Navajo Nation, despite continued evidence that energy development can occur while protecting and conserving the environment.

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