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We Need an Interior Department Aimed at Environmental Justice — Not Destruction

The department’s role in facilitating oil and gas exploration on Indigenous lands has contributed to the climate crisis.

The department’s role in facilitating oil and gas exploration on Indigenous lands has contributed to the climate crisis.

President Biden’s executive order to tackle the climate crisis aims to take coordinated measures to wean the U.S. off fossil fuels — and, significantly, mentions the Department of the Interior (DOI) as a significant player in this pursuit. The department’s role in facilitating oil and gas exploration on public land has contributed to the climate crisis while also leaving a disproportionate number of Indigenous communities suffering from environmental toxicity and related illnesses. Biden’s selection of Rep. Deb Haaland as DOI secretary demonstrates the new administration’s understanding of the importance of shifting the agency’s goals and practices, if the administration is serious about a commitment to climate action and racial justice.

Under President Obama and President Trump, oil production and new fossil fuel leases through this agency increased while staff attrition swelled dangerously. However, with Haaland at its head, the DOI will have a real chance to reverse its role in exacerbating climate change and environmental racism. Yet, in order to fully realize this potential, the agency will need more funding, increased lower-level staff and much more diversity.

Greenhouse Gases and Environmental Racism Under DOI

Most people regard the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the main federal agency impacting climate change, but the DOI — and, within it, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) — also play large and often hidden roles in mitigating or contributing to climate change and environmental injustice. The BLM is responsible for overseeing 245 million acres of public land — all of which used to be Native land — and leasing these public lands to oil and gas companies to extract fossil fuels. The BOEM manages over 1,600 oil and gas leases on approximately 14.2 outer continental shelf acres. The BIA’s stated mission is to promote the overall wellbeing of Indigenous tribes, negotiate oil and gas lease agreements on tribal lands, and fight for tribal rights regarding these agreements. The history of the BIA and its relationship to Indigenous nations, however, is fraught. And in its original form, the department began as an adversarial agency implementing policies like the banning of ceremonial dance and forcible displacement of Native children into boarding schools. Today’s BLM continues to threaten Indigenous culture and ancestral lands through its relationship with oil and gas companies.

A study conducted from 2005-2014 revealed that drilling for fossil fuels on public lands controlled by the BLM and BOEM accounted for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. In 2012, under President Obama, domestic gas production reached an all-time high and oil production reached its highest level in 15 years. And while fossil fuel production was high under Obama, Trump’s fossil fuel-hungry agenda more than tripled new oil and gas leases on public land from 2016 to 2019.

In addition to the influx of new oil and gas leases, a decades-long increase in abandoned gas and oil wells and pipelines has become a major environmental liability. Contrary to common sense, these abandoned and inactive wells have the potential to emit more greenhouse gases than active ones. And while there is a process that can be administered to safely seal the wells and pipelines once they are no longer active, fossil fuel companies and the BLM often mismanage or fail to complete this process.

These active and inactive pipelines and oil wells tend to be located near low-income and Indigenous communities, a clear manifestation of environmental racism (the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color). Indigenous reservations represent only 2 percent of the United States, but hold about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas reserves. In the case of one of the most recent pipelines approved by the DOI, the Alaska LNG Pipeline, 53 percent of the residents surrounding the pipeline are Alaska Native, compared to 18 percent of Alaska as a whole.

When these pipelines and wells are no longer considered of value to the oil companies, they are often abandoned without being sealed properly. It is then up to the BLM to seal the well, but the agency has been neglecting this responsibility — once again, disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities.

In 2018, nearly 50 abandoned oil and gas wells were discovered on Navajo Nation land by the Navajo Nation EPA. Later that year, it was estimated that more than 500 and possibly several thousand abandoned oil and gas wells were located in the San Juan Basin, home of the Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute and Jicarilla Apache reservations. This cluster of reservations within the San Juan Basin directly aligns with a methane “hot spot” found in 2014 by NASA of the largest concentration of gas methane over the United States. NASA attributed this hot spot to leaks from gas-processing equipment, revealing the disproportionate presence of active and inactive gas wells and consequently, greenhouse gases near Native communities.

Concerning Trends Within the DOI

Early in his presidency, Trump pledged to slash jobs in most cabinet agencies, including the Department of the Interior. The DOI’s problems, however, predate Trump. From 2007 to 2010, staffing levels within the Department of Interior and more specifically, the Bureau of Land Management, were on the rise. But from 2010 to 2020, jobs within the DOI, BLM and BIA were cut. About 13,000 DOI jobs, 1,100 BLM jobs and almost a fourth (2,200) of BIA jobs were shed from 2010 to 2020. These decreases reduce the capacity for oversight, making abandoned and faulty oil and gas wells a staple, not an anomaly, of oil exploration on public land.

These staff cuts also disproportionately impacted Native employees, reducing representation at a moment of increased Indigenous-led climate activism. A fourth of Native people employed at the DOI lost their jobs from 2010 to 2020, with over a third of those employed by the BLM losing their jobs. Only at the BIA, which has an “Indian Preference” hiring policy, was Indigenous job loss proportionate to the overall number of jobs slashed.

All of this has left the DOI, BLM and BIA severely understaffed and often unable to do the tasks necessary to keep communities safe and mitigate climate change. A BLM field officer responsible for monitoring oil and gas wells on tribal lands in the West reported that of the 1,000+ wells he is assigned to monitor, he visits less than 15 percent in a given year. Further, he admits, “We’re not funded to go past 40 hours a week…. Whether tribal resources are protected really comes down to how loudly is a tribe advocating for themselves with the BIA and BLM. We try to do what we can but there have to be things we’re missing.”

While the BLM’s intense attrition continues, it remains one of the DOI’s least-staffed agencies in comparison to how much land they are responsible for, with one employee per 23,000 acres of land. This, along with dismal oversight, contributes to the BLM’s inadequate maintenance of wells and pipelines, leaving inactive wells concentrated in Indigenous communities leaking dangerous levels of benzene (a carcinogen), methane (a greenhouse gas), heavy metals, radioactive substances, hydrogen sulfide and ozone.

Budgetary freezes further exacerbate this crisis. While the DOI’s budget has increased slightly over the past 10 years, funding for “Abandoned Well Remediation” has remained at zero for six of those 10 years. When money is allotted to this fund, it only ranges from $3,000 – $33,000 a year. The BLM, however, estimates that at least $46 million is needed to fully reclaim the abandoned wells located on public and tribal land. Thus, the available funds for plugging oil and gas wells are negligible in comparison to what is needed. Without increased funding, gas and oil wells all over the U.S. and on tribal lands will continue to leak hazardous emissions, contributing to climate change and lethal health conditions for Native communities and the United States as a whole.

The DOI Must Be Redirected to Advance Climate Action

The Department of Interior has been contributing to climate change and consequently, environmental injustice for decades now, but it does not have to be this way. Biden’s bold plan to address climate change and racial injustice will fall short without the help of the DOI, and specifically its bureaus, the BLM and BIA. These agencies need to be redirected to advance climate action and environmental justice by significantly reducing the lease of tribal-adjacent public lands to fossil fuel companies, and properly sealing inactive fossil fuel wells and pipelines so as to stop spewing toxins and greenhouse gases into communities.

Reporting from Indigenous Rising, a project of the Indigenous Environmental Network, reveals the increased risks of asthma, respiratory infections, cancer and neurological damage that methane flaring and venting have wrought on Indigenous communities like the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Regulatory rollbacks at the BLM “is nothing but [an] appeasement of the oil and gas industry,” writes Lisa Deville, president of the Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (POWER). Organizations like POWER see increased regulation and monitoring of oil and gas pollution as one way to alleviate environmental racism perpetrated by the BLM. This is especially important in states with weak regulatory standards.

Other Indigenous-led campaigns like the NDN Collective’s Landback movement call for the dismantling of the Bureau of Land Management and the return of all public lands back into Indigenous hands. The campaign’s manifesto highlights the symbiosis between climate justice and the return of Indigenous stewardship.

Any shift in the department’s focus will be close to meaningless if it is not backed up with an infusion of resources and new commitment to Indigenous leadership. Public land monitored by the BLM is almost solely in the West of the United States, where Native communities are heavily concentrated, leaving them disproportionately affected by this agency’s decisions. Currently, the BLM is over 80 percent white and less than 2 percent Indigenous. The BLM should more than triple the number of Native peoples in the agency, especially given that Native Americans make up, on average, over 6 percent of the population in the 10 states containing the highest amounts of public land controlled by the BLM.

This can in part be achieved through an “Indian Preference” hiring policy, similar to the one within the BIA. Though sorely needed, hiring could take years to rectify the imbalance of Indigenous representation at the agency. Moreover, beyond representation, Indigenous communities should be guiding the decision-making of these agencies. Radical shifts in policy-making processes will be necessary to center Indigenous voices and needs.

Cris Stainbrook is president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a community-based organization that facilitates the recovery of American Indian homelands. According to Stainbrook, a quicker way to elevate tribal representation would be to create an Office of Tribal Relations within the BLM. This office would “require BLM consultation with the office on every policy and lease related to Native Americans before it is even crafted.”

The DOI and BLM should also aim to increase their departments from 66,000 and 10,000 to 110,000 and 17,000 staff members, respectively, in order to increase the monitoring and sealing of oil and gas wells to prevent the poisoning of Indigenous communities. From 2008 to 2019, the U.S. GDP increased 50 percent, from $14 trillion to $21 trillion. Had the DOI and BLM grown proportionately to the GDP, they would have seen a proportionate 50 percent increase in staffing levels since 2008. Instead, they have experienced steady decline. While these goal numbers may seem like large increases, it is only a small percentage of the Biden administration’s estimated 250,000 agency employees necessary to properly seal abandoned wells across the U.S.

Commensurate with the advocated increase in personnel, the DOI and BLM budget should increase by 50 percent to $26.3 billion and $1.9 billion respectively. Additional funding, to the tune of $46 million, is also needed to properly seal the thousands of abandoned wells on federal and tribal lands. With a Democratically held House and Senate, and a new administration pledging a $2 trillion climate plan, the above recommendations are well within reach. Biden’s bold climate plan will be almost impossible to achieve without a well-functioning, climate-conscious Interior Department reversing its destructive course on the climate and people of color.

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