ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico has brokered an agreement between the federal government and a state-run college that has the potential to open hundreds of thousands of acres in the San Juan Basin to oil and gas drilling and result in royalties for thousands of Navajo landowners.
Gov. Susana Martinez announced the partnership between the state, San Juan College and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Federal Indian Minerals Office during a visit to Farmington on Thursday.
Under the agreement, the college will provide technical assistance in processing nearly 300 leases negotiated between Navajo landowners and developers that have been stuck at the Federal Indian Minerals Office. State officials estimate the first of these leases could be approved in a matter of weeks.
Martinez's administration is hopeful the agreement, the first of its kind in the nation, could help other western states where federal budget cuts and staffing challenges have resulted in a bottleneck when it comes to approving lease agreements between individual American Indian landowners and developers.
Some landowners have waited months, while others say it has taken them years to wade through the process, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost royalties.
"This is a major breakthrough that will create jobs and improve the lives and well-being of the landowners," Martinez said in a statement.
Allotments in the Four Corners region have increased in value over the last two years thanks to advancements in technology that are encouraging oil and gas developers to tap the area's shale deposits. New Mexico officials say more drilling in the region is likely to lead to more jobs, consumer spending and tax revenues that would bolster the state's coffers.
Dan Fine with the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department said New Mexico is not the only state where the government has been struggling to process lease agreements for allottees. He pointed to Oklahoma and North Dakota, which is in the midst of an oil boom.
Allotments are not held by tribal governments but have been given to individual tribal members by the federal government. Today, most allottees are second- or third-generation owners who inherited the land from their parents or grandparents.
Fine said many of the Navajo allottees in northwestern New Mexico are living in poverty, in homes with dirt floors and no electricity or running water.
"Their sense of this is that they feel deprived. There's a great sense of anger," he said. "They're talking about justice now."
Frankie Davis, one of the allottees, said Thursday the agreement will give Native landowners an option besides "begging and borrowing from the federal government."
"This is a step up, a step up to the finances they can receive to strengthen themselves and reinvest in themselves," Davis said.