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Fighting for Environmental Justice: The Detrimental Impact of Big Oil and Gas on New Mexico’s Indigenous Communities

In northern New Mexico, the Navajo and Pueblo native tribes face constant public health and environmental risks due to land leases for oil drilling on local public lands. Although fracking has been permitted for decades in this region, in 2010, new technologies allowed oil companies to drill deeper than ever before, revitalizing the potential for companies to continue to deplete the region’s resources. At the beginning of 2020, nearly 90 percent of public lands in New Mexico were leased for oil and natural gas drilling by the Bureau of Land Management. After decades of drilling, New Mexico’s native lands have experienced extreme damage, putting local communities and wildlife species in a vulnerable state. 

Indigenous communities have faced incredible challenges due to the rise of oil and gas drilling. One of the highest at-risk areas is the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a vast archeological region that is home to many ancient artifacts and architecture from Puebloan culture. For local indigenous people, this park is still a spiritual site filled with rich ancestral history. In 2019, a moratorium was passed by the House of Representatives restricting oil drilling within a ten-mile radius around the historical site. However, despite this protection of the park, researchers fear that nearby drilling could still destroy undiscovered artifacts that might be underground. Additionally, the turbulent vibrations from the drilling could also impact the structural integrity of the archeological site. 

In addition to destroying the sacred lands, leasing zones also disrupt modern life for the communities and indigenous people in New Mexico. Due to local laws, drilling can occur as close as 300 feet outside of private property; this close exposure to fracking can have numerous implications for locals. First, fracking can be a nuisance since drilling is noisy and causes deep vibrations in the ground that can be disruptive and ruin a peaceful quality of life. Additionally, a rise in the industry also means more industrial workers, which has caused overcrowding on roads and in neighborhoods of many small towns. Most importantly, living in close proximity to industrial drilling has numerous health implications for locals. According to NASA, New Mexico’s San Juan Basin region has the biggest concentration of methane gas in the United States. Methane leaks cause harmful air quality that can lead to headaches and other health problems, especially in young children and the elderly. These issues have only exacerbated the public health crisis, as communities such as the Navajo nation have also been heavily impacted by COVID-19. 

Local water quality and abundance has also been a pressing issue. Fracking requires pumping freshwater deep below the surface of the rock; therefore, when the oil flows up to the surface, the chemical-infused water is also released. Not only is this chemical-filled water a detriment to the environment as it can contaminate waterways, it depletes already scarce water resources in the region. New Mexico is already one of the warmest states in the U.S. with frequent droughts and low precipitation. In the long run, the impacts of climate change will make it increasingly more difficult to acquire the water necessary to continue such wide-scale fracking in the region. Oil and gas companies are currently searching for new methods of reusing chemical-soiled water from drilling, as using freshwater will not be a long-term solution as resources become scarce. 

With so much land absorbed by fracking, the detriment to local species and wildlife has also been monumental. Oil companies will destroy massive plots of land, completely obliterating any plants, soil, or animal habitats. Additionally, disruptive vibrations in the land can destroy animal communication patterns, ruining vast ecosystems in the region. In order to protect biodiversity, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has focused on creating “areas of critical environmental concern,” also known as ACECs, which are protected regions within leased areas such as breeding grounds or nesting sites. Specifically, in the Permian Basin region, the ACECs are especially important for protecting high-risk species that would otherwise be severely impacted by fracking.

With so many involved stakeholders, policies regarding land leases and fracking in New Mexico bear a heavy weight on local communities and species. As soon as he arrived in office, President Biden ordered a sixty-day pause on new permits for oil and gas drilling on federal land. During this break, the administration planned on reviewing existing leases. This pause would impact approximately nine percent of total U.S. fracking sites. In New Mexico, the pause would affect several major oil gas companies as over half of fracking sites in the Permian Basin region are located on federal lands. As a first step towards environmental justice, the Biden administration continues to review the federal land leasing system and fracking laws. During this review, environmental advocacy groups across the state of New Mexico are pleading for increased funding to help regulate drilling and to consider the environmental impacts of such a pollutive industry. 

As decisions are being made about the future of oil and gas in New Mexico, it is critical to consider the long term social and economic implications of the fossil fuel industry. Lawmakers must prioritize finding sustainable, clean-energy solutions that will preserve the environment and protect local communities for generations to come. 


Works Cited

Chamberlain, Kendra. (2020, January 15). In Permian Basin, BLM Continues Oil and Gas Leasing on Lands Proposed for Protections. NM Political Report.

Eaton, Collin. (2021, January 27). Biden’s Order to Freeze New Oil Drilling on Public Lands: What You Need to Know. The Wall Street Journal.

Hedden, Adrian. (2021, March 25). New Mexico Indigenous Leaders Criticize Oil and Gas Industry amid Interior’s Federal Review. Carlsbad Current Argus.

Hedden, Adrian. (2021, April 15). New Mexico Activists Call for Oil and Gas Reform Amid Biden’s Review of Federal Policy. Carlsbad Current Argus.

Hyman, Randall. (2020, September 16). New Fossil Fuel Projects Meet Indiginous Resistance in New Mexico. Truthout.

National Park Service. (n.d). History & Culture. National Park Service.

Nelson, Cody. (2020, June 10). ‘Their Greed is Gonna Kill Us’: Indian Country Fights Against More Fracking. The Guardian.

Reese, April. (2020, February 5). There’s a New Boom in the Permian Basin – Wastewater. High Country News.

Reuters. (2021, March 25). Oil Industry Pushes Back as Biden Administration Launches Review of Federal Lands Drilling. U.S. News and World Report.

Ruas, Carla. (2019, June 28). 3 Reasons to Protect Greater Chaco Canyon from Oil and Gas Drilling. The Wilderness Society.

Wiles, Tay. (2019, May 22). The Hidden Consequences of New Mexico’s Latest Oil Boom. High Country News.


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