A fracking operation. Sales of oil and gas leases in the Southwest are causing concern, especially those near ancient, sacred archaeological sites.

‘Keep It in the Ground’ Movement Puts BLM Leasing in Its Sights

Frances Madeson

The fracking battle that is developing near ancient, sacred Chaco Canyon is merely the most visible of a groundswell of opposition to the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing of oil and gas drilling licenses throughout the Southwest.

RELATED: Fracking Versus Ancient Astronomy in Chaco Canyon

A broad coalition of New Mexican environmental groups are gearing up to oppose the offering of 36 lease parcels comprised of 13,876 acres of publicly owned land in the southeastern portion of the state that were initially slated to be sold off on July 20. The sale, originally scheduled to take place in Santa Fe, was recently changed to Roswell, New Mexico, three hours away.

Opponents of the auction, part of a movement known as Keep It in the Ground, are scrambling to respond to the change of venue. Among other measures, they are encouraging members of the movement in the Roswell area to register as bidders at the auction and organizing carpools from northern New Mexico to join them. And they claim that the venue change was not publicized. The BLM said it is taking those concerns into consideration, and in fact on July 13 changed the sale date to September 1.

“We want to be transparent,” said BLM spokesperson Lisa Morrison about the change of venue. “We’ve heard concerns about the change and our 45-day notice provision, so we’re taking a look at it.”

In addition, protest organizers are pursuing a permit to protest outside the BLM office in Santa Fe on July 20 from 12–1 p.m. Their ranks will be bolstered by several vans filled with indigenous participants on the Protect Our Public Lands Tour. The tour is visiting frontline communities from California to Philadelphia, documenting the stories of Native American community members working to transition to renewable energy.

Keep it in the Ground has this year been taking its message to the streets, rallying outside a BLM auction in Santa Fe in April, as well as conducting other protests. Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (DinéCARE), Idle No More Four Corners, Indigenous Life Ways, Tewa Women United and United Native Americans joined, the Sierra Club, Wild Earth Guardians and others in co-sponsoring the April rally, the first of several that are planned. The New Mexico coalition is part of a rapidly growing national movement calling on President Barack Obama to halt new federal fossil fuel leases on public lands and waters—a step that would keep up to 450 billion tons of potential carbon pollution, equivalent to the pollution of 118,000 power plants—safely in the ground.

“We’re facing a tsunami of oil development and disrespect,” said rally participant Daniel Tso, Diné, who traveled 300 miles from Aztec, New Mexico, to the April rally to protest what he termed “the impingement on Navajo Nation sovereignty” by the BLM leasing program. “Our lands get fracked whether we want it or not, and the effects of drilling among our homes, the domination of the service and freight trucks on our roads and the adverse health impacts—the foul smell of methane gas that ends up as soot in our nostrils and in our children’s respiratory systems—are discounted.”

RELATED: Oil Leases Proliferate in Northwestern New Mexico as Diné and Pueblo Call for Oversight

Outside the Courtyard Marriott, where lease prices were sold for as low as $2 per acre, protestors lined Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe’s main drag in the business corridor, holding banners and signs as drivers honked and pumped their fists in solidarity. The crowd was serenaded by acoustic trio Lone Piñon.

“The songs we sang carry the voice of people who identify with the land they live on and see it as a part of themselves,” explained fiddler Jordan Wax. “In this kind of relationship, there is no room for fracking or exploitative development.”

Though no elected officials attended the protest, Alan Webber, who campaigned in the 2014 Democratic primary race for governor, was there.

“I’m concerned about Chaco Canyon and New Mexico’s environment,” said Webber, founder of One New Mexico, a nonprofit that is establishing a think tank to stimulate economic development. “What Chaco represents, the Four Corners region too, in terms of cultural inheritance, is irreplaceable, and we should respect that for the future. The continued leasing makes no sense from an environmental standpoint or from an economic standpoint. It’s bad practice for New Mexico, and it doesn’t solve our problems.”

Local business owners concurred.

“We’re standing up for renewable energy, and an alternative existence on how we’re going to create sustainability,” said Noah Kass, owner of Oxygen Bar, on Santa Fe’s main plaza. “It’s important for Santa Fe businesses to be part of that conversation. Solar is New Mexico’s great asset; as business people we have to continually reinvest locally by sourcing locally, and that includes energy.”

Eleanor Bravo, the executive director of NM Food and Water Watch, rally co-sponsor and Keep it in the Ground proponent, wants to see an immediate end to “extreme energy extraction,” as she called it.

“The industry stranglehold on our economy pressures our federal government to use our lands for private purposes, but we want to preserve our public lands for our children and grandchildren,” Bravo said, adding that for some people, the future has already arrived.

“First Nations’ people are the most vulnerable. They will suffer the most and most immediately,” Bravo said. “They always lose the most in this kind of activity. In some places they have little or no potable water. We’re honored to be by their side in partnership.”

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