At the end of March, a federal court said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has not adequately considered protection of cultural sites near Chaco Culture National Historical Park when granting permits for oil and gas drilling. The full order is still forthcoming, but the six-page memo by Judge James Browning echoed comments by U.S. Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this spring. When Zinke postponed the sale of oil and gas leases on 4,434 acres of BLM land in San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties, he told the Albuquerque Journal, “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.”
Under federal law, agencies must consult with tribes that have cultural ties to an area being developed, whether the plan is to drill oil and gas wells, inundate a reservoir, build a pipeline or create a national monument. Yet, what often constitutes consultation is already considered inadequate by tribes and activists—and some wonder how the Interior Department will address the problem in northwestern New Mexico while simultaneously prioritizing energy development. President Donald Trump signed an executive order early in his administration directing Zinke to review the agency’s rules, including one guiding hydraulic fracturing on federal and Indian lands.
Retired National Park Service employees spoke with reporters today about the impacts of oil and gas development on some national parks—particularly from adjacent lands overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Coalition to Protect America’s Parks sent a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, expressing concern over the “alarming” number of oil and gas proposals near parks and what they see as overall efforts by the department to reduce protections for national parks in order to encourage oil and gas drilling. “As former land managers, we understand the need to balance competing priorities,” the former NPS employees wrote. “But we fear the pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development.”
The coalition represents 1,400 retired, former and current National Park Service employees. The letter to Zinke cites concerns about six parks in particular, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the energy-rich San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico.
On a windy Monday morning in May, residents packed the Counselor Chapter House. Some sat in plastic folding chairs, while others leaned against the wall, all paying attention to the speakers. Coming to the front of the chapter house, Marie Herbert-Chavez introduced herself in the Navajo language. “I’m going to talk real fast OK,” she said as she took the microphone to talk about fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in her community near Chaco Canyon. This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. Four members of the Navajo Nation Council, Speaker LoRenzo Bates, Councilor Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Councilor Davis Filfred and Councilor Leonard Tsosie who represents Counselor as well as nearby chapters, had come to hear testimony from area residents.
With all the big oil and gas news over the last few weeks, it might be hard to keep track of the different rules, agencies, court rulings and studies—and what they mean for New Mexico. Last week, U.S. District Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg ruled that the federal government’s environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline was insufficient. The ruling came after the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes sued the federal government, arguing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t complied with the National Environmental Policy Act when it greenlighted plans to build the oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River. In his opinion, Boasberg wrote that the court agrees that the federal government didn’t adequately consider how an oil spill would affect fishing rights, hunting rights or environmental justice issues. It’s not clear, however, if the company must cease operations while the Corps of Engineers reconsiders certain sections of its environmental analysis.
Saturday night, freshman state Rep. Derrick Lente watched one of his first initiatives turn into a showdown on the House floor. Earlier in the session, Lente’s memorial to protect cultural and historical sites near Chaco Canyon received bipartisan support and passed through the House State Government, Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committee unanimously. Something changed, though. By the time it reached the House floor, the Democrat’s memorial had triggered uncertainty and skepticism from Republicans. That’s because there was an elephant lurking in the room, said Lente, who is from the Pueblo of Sandia.
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management auctioned off the rights to drill for oil and gas on 843 acres in northwestern New Mexico. The sale of these particular leases, in the Chaco Canyon region, had been postponed due to opposition from environmental and indigenous groups. The leases are in Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties. According to a story in the Santa Fe New Mexican, the rights sold for $3 million and at least 15 companies bid during the online auction run by Energy Net, an online oil and gas marketplace. The BLM’s next auction for New Mexico oil and gas leases is planned for July.
The big environment story last week was an announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying that it can’t pay claims of more than a billion dollars in economic damages caused by the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. As the AP reported on Friday: A total of 73 claims were filed, some by farmers who lost crops or had to haul water because rivers polluted by the spill were temporarily unusable for irrigation and livestock. Rafting companies and their employees sought lost income and wages because they couldn’t take visitors on river trips. Some homeowners sought damages because, they said, their wells were affected. Tribes, including the Navajo Nation, were also affected.
The Dakota Access Pipeline may be 1,000 miles away from the southwest, but issues raised at Standing Rock—related to energy development and Indian lands and rights—resonate here in New Mexico. “In the case of Standing Rock, I think it sent a very strong message about what we can do, what being involved in a community can do, and the pressure it can put on an agency,” said Theresa Pasqual, an archaeologist and former director of Acoma Pueblo’s Historic Preservation Office who now works as a consultant. “I hope that here in New Mexico, especially for people that have been following the Standing Rock tribe’s movement to protect its water and to protect its cultural resources, that they will take an interest in what happens here, but also say, ‘What can I do? What can I do to be engaged locally?’” Doing so, she said, can change the “course of conversation” around many of the energy issues that affect New Mexico’s tribes. Related: The launch of our new environmental beat
Indeed, New Mexico’s tribes have struggled with issues not unlike those raised in Standing Rock for a long time.
[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]STATE SEN. BENNY SHENDO represents New Mexico Senate District 22 and STATE REP. GEORGENE LOUIS represents New Mexico House District 26, both are Democrats.[/box]
Working together is tough, and learning to trust one another when facing big decisions can be even tougher. This is especially true when government agencies are trying to balance oil and gas development with the needs of communities, industry, and other stakeholders. Just because issues don’t have easy solutions, doesn’t mean we should shy away from finding common ground. This is especially true if we want to preserve the amazing beauty of our western landscapes and protect the health of our communities living with nearby oil and gas development. No other place embodies this conflict more than the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico.
President Theodore Roosevelt declared Chaco Canyon to be an historical monument on March 11, 1907, and 108 years later to the day, a coalition of environmental groups leveled a lawsuit against the federal government alleging inadequate protection of the area. John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe, said on Wednesday that the timing was coincidental but appropriate, representing “another important milestone in the effort to protect Greater Chaco.” The primary threat to Chaco Canyon in Roosevelt’s time was looting of archaeologically and culturally precious sites, said Horning. “Today the threat is oil and gas development and fracking in particular.” Horning said the groups who brought the lawsuit hope to not only halt industry activity in the Chaco area, but to set “the foundation for a much better movement.”