Biden considers desert drilling ban at US tribal conference

Unesco World Heritage location under consideration for a 20-year ban

US President Joe Biden is considering a ban on new oil and gas drilling within 16 kilometres of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, the White House announced on Monday.

Mr Biden made the announcement during the tribal nations summit, a multi-day event that brings together indigenous leaders from across the US.

“We have to continue to stand up for the dignity and sovereignty of tribal nations,” the president said during the meeting, the first since 2016. Mr Biden has expressed his hopes of making it an annual event.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in north-western New Mexico and is an area considered to be spiritually significant to the Pueblo people.

“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked and thrived in that high desert community,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said.

The canyon is also one of 24 Unesco World Heritage sites in the US.

The ban is part of Mr Biden’s efforts to protect wild and historic areas from energy companies. It’s a significant reversal from former president Donald Trump’s pro-drilling policies.

The proposed restrictions on drilling come as Mr Biden faces political pressure over rocketing fuel prices amid a broader rise in Covid-19 pandemic-related inflation.

Mr Trump was cheered by Republicans when he stripped federal protections around the country to encourage oil and gas production. Mr Biden has sought to roll that back.

In October, Mr Biden restored environmental protections for two wild Utah expanses linked to America's indigenous history and a biodiverse area of the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr Biden also became the first US president to issue a proclamation for Indigenous Peoples' Day, which coincides with the increasingly contentious national holiday celebrating explorer Christopher Columbus.

In addition to the proposed ban on drilling, Mr Biden announced other major initiatives, including the protection of tribal treaty rights within the federal government. He also signed an executive order addressing the crisis of violence against Native American women.

“We're going to make some substantial changes in Indian country,” said Mr Biden.

The conference comes at a time when indigenous groups are still reeling from the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, with many communities disproportionately affected by the virus.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: November 15th 2021, 7:04 PM