The next Standing Rock-style protest could be this Navajo oil battle in New Mexico


Two days before activists protesting the construction of an oil pipeline at Standing Rock declared a tentative victory on Sunday, the federal Bureau of Land Management held a public meeting in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation.

The Dec. 2 meeting — the last of eight held since early November — was designed to let locals ask questions about rampant fracking and oil development in the area. Indigenous people and environmentalists in the Southwest have been speaking out against such projects for much of the last two years. But in recent months, their efforts have been re-energized by the protests in North Dakota.

About 25 attendees at Friday's meeting were young people who'd made the trek south from the Dakota Access pipeline protests to engage and stage demonstrations in Window Rock.

"When I got there, they had already exceeded the fire code," said Lori Goodman, a Navajo environmental activist and volunteer with Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment. (Diné is an indigenous word for Navajo.) "There were 180 to 200 people, which we'd never had before. We had to request that those who've already participated leave the building and let those in who hadn't yet."

The November meetings concerned the amendment of a Resource Management Plan for the region, which sets guidelines for how the Bureau of Land Management allows public lands to be used. The current plan was passed in 2003, before modern fracking technology was being widely used in the area.

As a result, the current RMP does not account for the dangers such techniques might pose. This lapse has allowed the BLM to approve permits for more than 360 new oil wells on and around indigenous land, according to the Sierra Club. Many Navajo and other concerned residents want the plan changed so it recognizes for these new threats. 

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The comparison is imperfect, but there are striking similarities between what's happening in Navajo country today and what happened at Standing Rock this past year. "I definitely see parallels," said Kendra Pinto, a Navajo community leader. "People across the country are learning it's OK to stand up for water. That it's OK to stand up for people."

Both battles stem from indigenous people's objections to oil interests that endanger natural resources on or near their lands. Both started as local confrontations that gestated for more than a year before outsiders started paying attention. And both were responses to brief oil booms in their respective states. In northwest New Mexico alone, an estimated 91% of public lands have been handed over to private companies for oil drilling, according to the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local environmental advocacy group.

"We've tracked hundreds of new wells built since 2013," said Mike Eisenfeld, the alliance's energy and climate program manager. "The BLM is saying this is just exploratory drilling. We're saying it looks like development."

The cost of this development has been steep for local people. In Navajo country, residents must now cope with devastating air pollution, noise and road damage caused by trucks and workers fracking and expanding the region's oil wells, Lori Goodman of Diné CARE said. Oil development in the area over the last century has created a methane gas hotspot so intense it is visible from outer space via spectrometer, according to the Denver Post.

Meanwhile, many archaeological and paleontological sites in the region remain protected from the drilling. But considering what a rich site of indigenous history the Greater Chaco area has proven to be, it's unclear what's being lost to obscurity as developers lay waste to the landscape.

"This is the epicenter of Southwest archaeology," Eisenfeld said. "It's really one of the world-class sites."

"I definitely see parallels between here and Standing Rock." — Kendra Pinto

Residents feel other dangers even more acutely. In July, 36 oil tanks caught fire near the small Navajo town of Nageezi, New Mexico, forcing 55 people to evacuate their homes while the blaze raged for three days. It doesn't end there. The next battlefront in this conflict could very well be the region's own version of the Dakota Access pipeline. The proposed Piñon pipeline — an endeavor of Saddle Butte San Juan Midstream Pipeline LLC, out of Durango, Colorado — was introduced in 2014, and is slated to traverse 130 miles of northwest New Mexico terrain transporting up to 50,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM did not immediately respond to Mic's request for comment, so a timeline for the Piñon project remains unclear. But according to Eisenfeld and Goodman, Navajo community members and other environmental advocates have succeeded in delaying the project pending the completion of an environmental impact statement, which may take up to two years. The 2003 Resource Management Plan amendment process is still ongoing.

But as national attention starts shifting away from the Dakota Access pipeline — which was temporarily halted in North Dakota on Sunday pending further environmental assessment — disputes across the country, like that over oil drilling in the Greater Chaco area, continue barreling forward. The project's indigenous opponents have no intention of stopping anytime soon, either — even if they have to dig their heels in for the long haul.

"I really hope that there's a movement out here like the one in North Dakota," Kendra Pinto said. "People are seeing what's happening up north. There's a lot more courage now here, and a lot more speaking out. That's what we need. We have to fight, and people are starting to realize that it's required we fight for each other."