The first public comment meeting for the Chaco Canyon took place over Zoom. The matter at hand: a proposed plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco Region in northwestern New Mexico, ancestral and sacred lands to Native tribes, including the Pueblo and Navajo peoples. This was on May 14. Across the US, many were still under stay-at-home orders and businesses remained closed as families grieved the loss of tens of thousands from COVID-19. The price of oil, meanwhile, had collapsed; on April 20 a barrel of oil traded was worth less than nothing. Under the circumstances, you might have thought plans to expand drilling for oil and gas could wait. On the contrary, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the Trump administration seemed more eager than ever to fast-track oil and gas projects.
To host the virtual meeting, the BLM tapped EMPSi—a private contractor that describes itself as “a trusted partner helping agencies and industry navigate challenging regulatory and market conditions to build a better tomorrow.” People joined the meeting either by calling a phone number (if you had cell service) or through Zoom (if you had internet access). You couldn’t see other participants, but, if you were on Zoom, you could leave a question in the Q&A chat and look at the presentation slides while a floating talking head read out loud what was on the slides. Then came the public comment part of the meeting, in which people had to jump through technical hoops to request to be unmuted and allowed to share their comment. When people succeeded in getting a chance to speak, a three-minute counter appeared on a screen, above their names. When the clock ran out, they were muted again.
In the Q&A section, people asked sensible questions, such as if the recent environmental impact statement (EIS) accounted for the crash in oil and gas prices. Would this Zoom meeting be the only ones the BLM will hold to satisfy its public participation duty under federal law? Would the environmental impact statement—in all, three volumes, including four annexes, with a total of 259 pages of dry language—be translated in the Ute language? A BLM representative used boilerplate talking points to avoid giving clear answers. Frustrations boiled over during the testimonials.
“Why are these comment meetings happening now and virtually when Navajo Nation and many Pueblos are in crisis and don’t have internet access to be able to participate?” asked one commenter.
“Postpone so people can grieve for the loss of other people. We have limited internet, and they know. We are being silenced. Why now? Because we are all distracted,” said another.
The tribes living in Chaco had previously asked for a postponement but had received no answer from the BLM. One commenter testified that communities in the Chaco area had already suffered from poor air quality because of existing oil and gas developments, and that the EIS didn’t take into account socio-economic standards or that oil and gas prices have bombed. “This area is a bust up here and it’s time to think about a post-oil-and-gas world,” one commenter said. Added another: “We do not need these wells in our homelands. I want you to consider stopping, please.”
Chaco isn’t the only place in the US where oil and gas projects are being fast-tracked on public lands right now. Far from it. In the northernmost part of Alaska, in the Arctic Circle, a plan by ConocoPhillips to build five oil drilling sites, 337 miles of pipeline, two airstrips, two gravel mines and hundreds of miles of new roads is moving ahead. Known as the Willow Project, this massive operation would be developed right next to Teshekpuk Lake, home to polar bear dens, migrating birds and the Teshekpuk caribou herd. The BLM Alaska held a series of virtual public comment meetings to hear testimony on the Willow Project in April and May, in the middle of the pandemic.
“Before we were hit with COVID-19, the [tribal] leadership had demanded to BLM to do face to face consultations for more public input, but they cancelled three times. Then COVID-19 hit and they went ahead,” says Martha Itta, tribal administrator for the Native Village of Nuiqsut, one of half a dozen villages that directly depend on the Teshekpuk caribou for food. Itta told me she struggled to be heard during the virtual public comment meeting and got muted before being finished.
“Our community [has] been dealing with oil and gas for over 40 years,” she says. “My community likes face to face consultation, it makes it stronger, powerful to actually look at the faces, in person, [as] opposed to not being able to see who is responsible and meeting those that are making decisions on our behalf.”
Itta said only four members of the community gave testimony during the virtual public hearing for the Willow Project, compared to 30–50 people that would participate in in-person meetings before this pandemic. “Them holding these meetings during a global crisis is putting more fear and stress on me,” Itta said. “We are 110% focused on health and safety of our community now. This whole process of virtual hearings during a global crisis is an injustice to my community.”
Siqiniq Maupin was born in Utqiaġvik, but raised in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Her grandparents are from Nuiqsut and Utqiaġvik. She is an Iñupiaq mother now living in Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska. She’s been to several public hearing meetings to protect the North Slope from more oil and gas development, and during the BLM virtual public hearing for the Willow Project, she asked repeated questions that were not answered. She lamented how inhumane the entire meeting was.
“In person, you can come and if you want to comment you sign up and if you don’t you can sit and watch. We didn’t have a timer; if enough people commented and they had enough time left, they would open it up for questions. During these virtual meetings, I was completely alone after having to emotionally put myself out there for three weeks. Normally, I would be able to go have dinner with my friends, get some support. Instead, I’m going through this on my own, crying in front of my kids, trying to do this work while also dealing with everything going on, without community solidarity. At public meetings, it would be three of us single moms, our kids running around together; it felt like a community, and we had strength. Now it feels very lonely and depressing.”
“This land was stolen and now we’re asking people to fight to protect the land again, alone,” Maupin said.
Similar frustrations are playing out in Bristol Bay, where the Pebble Mine, a proposed open pit copper operation, threatens some of the best remaining salmon runs in the world. The mine had been blocked under the Obama administration, but now it’s back in play under Trump.
In the past five years, there have been more than 2.5 million comments in favor of protections for Bristol Bay and stopping the Pebble Mine. Sometimes, when enough people make enough noise targeting the right politician or institution, change does happen. In 2001, the US Forest Service adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule after wide-spread support: 1,700,000 public comments gathered through more than 600 public meetings. And the millions in support of protecting Bristol Bay helped too—at least until President Trump and Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy met on June 26 of last year, and Trump’s new EPA released a document a day later saying Clean Water Act protections would be removed for Bristol Bay, without any scientific justification to back up the decision. Since then, the Trump administration encouraged Pebble Mine to apply for mining permits and an environmental impact statement is to be published in mid-June—the fastest EIS in the history of Alaska.
“The EIS is corrupt to the core,” says Shoren Brown of the Alaska Heritage Campaign. “They’ve ignored requirements for Tribal consultation. They completely ignored the possibility of a catastrophic dam failure. They ignored all the problems and magically concluded that 10 billion tons of toxic waste won’t hurt salmon.”
These virtual public hearings don’t just make it hard for people to participate, they’re being used to check boxes and gloss over concerns. “The federal government can put sidebars on how this project plays out on the ground, add stipulations that protect Alaska Natives and salmon, and ensure that the world’s most valuable salmon fishery isn’t turned into a toxic waste dump,” says Brown. “They are listening to industry lobbyists instead of millions of Americans.” These projects are getting rushed through this administration because big industry players are able to skirt through legal requirements and get a rubber stamp to do what they want, without meaningful regulation to minimize and offset impacts. In the case of Bristol Bay, Pebble Mine has spent more than $11 million over the years lobbying, and $2.9 million this year alone, to ensure their mining plans make it through the state and federal permitting processes. When monied interests are involved, the representative process is vastly distorted.
Not that activists and commenters are giving up easy. With virtual town halls proving nothing more than another box for the BLM to check, they’re going outside these official processes through tactics like bird-dogging different decision-makers or companies who might be sensitive to public pressure. This appears to have worked in Utah, where earlier this year, reacting to a wave of public concern—nearly 2,000 messages in 24 hours—Utah’s governor asked the BLM to pull two parcels of land encompassing Moab’s iconic Slickrock Trail from a proposed oil and gas lease sale. In this case, change happened by applying pressure to the governor directly.
In Bristol Bay, organizers are waiting for the final environmental impact statement. There won’t be another public comment period following this, so Brown and other local activists are pivoting to put pressure on the EPA to put a stop to Pebble Mine using protections under the Clean Water Act. They don’t have high hopes that Trump’s EPA will veto what Trump’s Army Corps of Engineers has produced, but they think it’s their best bet to make noise and grab attention in the lead up to elections. “I don’t think anyone in Bristol Bay has any faith in the Army Corps of Engineers and the Trump White House anymore,” Brown says. “They’ve broken laws, ignored the public and done favors for every dirty lobbyist in DC. It’s time for new leadership in the White House.”
As for Chaco, relentless pressure from Tribes led to a 120-day extension to the public comment period.
Yet, conservationists and community organizers did admit to comment fatigue. “We’re commented out,” says Brown. “We’re a 12-year-old campaign, we’ve generated millions of comments and the results are in. We’re trying to be careful about asking people for help for moments that actually matter; the Trump administration has thrown millions of comments in the trash can.” And now they have to adapt to a Zoom-protest world.
“We are a very social species and there are many different channels in which people can feel marginalized and many different constructs that we’ve created that push some people to the top and some to the bottom,” says Dorsa Amir, an evolutionary anthropologist and postdoctoral research fellow at Boston College. Humans have the cultural apparatus of governments and social structures that other animals don’t have, which means we have the power to change laws and people’s behavior. “If we wanted to, we could regulate agencies differently and promote types of decisions that can create long-term gain for future generations,” she adds. “The car is there, but they won’t let the right people drive.”
Don't Let Them Mute Our Voices
We urgently need to stop the Trump administration from plowing ahead on anti-conservation decisions while the nation is overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis. Write to your elected representative to demand a pause on all comment periods during the pandemic.