Environmental groups and Navajo government officials are criticizing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the bureau’s handling of oil and gas leases approved in the Greater Chaco area. Navajo leaders and 16 tribal and environmental organizations addressed their concerns in a letter sent to BLM’s New Mexico state director Tim Spisak last week calling for more public hearings on the issue. “We urge you to reject the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Findings of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessments,” the letter reads. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved environmental assessments for five sets of oil and gas wells that did not address the cumulative water impacts of nearly 4,000 horizontal Mancos Shale wells in the Greater Chaco region. The ruling covered environmental assessments approved by BLM for 25 applications to drill in the area.
Activist Cheyenne Antonio lists the toxic legacies left by resource extraction and industry on Navajo lands: Superfund sites, coal mines, uranium contamination. But fracking, she says, “is a beast times ten that we cannot contain.”
With over 40,000 oil and gas wells spread throughout the San Juan Basin, many Navajo communities are on the frontlines of New Mexico’s oil and gas boom. Antonio, 25, has seen the impacts in her home Torreon, a small Navajo community surrounded by oil and gas development in northwest New Mexico. “Our aquifer right now is under threat from oil and gas industries,” she says. And she’s concerned about a rise in cancer diagnoses in her family.
SANTA FE — New Mexico is becoming an “energy sacrifice zone,” according to those who oppose the sale of 84,000 acres of state lands for oil and gas drilling. Opponents will rally at the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters in Santa Fe on Wednesday, one day ahead of Thursday’s planned online sale. The sell-off will include 46,000 acres in the culturally significant Greater Chaco region. The sale is scheduled despite 10,000 citizen protest comments, according to Miya King-Flaherty, organizer of Our Wild New Mexico at the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. She said the BLM is showing chronic disregard for public concerns, community health impacts and tribal consultation.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The recreational opportunities for hunting, angling and wildlife-watching on Bureau of Land Management lands in New Mexico are matched only by their economic benefits, according to a new study. The research to determine spending on wildlife-related recreation tells the New Mexico story – millions in salaries and wages, products and services sold, and state, local and federal tax revenues. Todd Leahy, acting educational director with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, says wildlife-related activities are an equal or greater economic driver than many other industries. “This is huge,” says Leahy. “I would venture that sportsmen don’t even know these numbers – $24 million in wages?
If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond. The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves.
In September, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will hold a sale on almost 200 drilling leases for 89,000 acres in Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties. About a dozen of those leases are within a mile of the boundary of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The National Parks Conservation Association hopes the BLM will defer the parcels nearest to the park, in critical cave and karst areas and in other places with environmental concerns or wilderness characteristics, said Ernie Atencio, the nonprofit’s New Mexico Program Manager. “They heard our request to that effect, and they might even agree and prepare the paperwork for it, but that’s another decision that has to come down from D.C. and no longer in the hands of local managers,” he said. Since 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order creating what was then called Carlsbad Cave National Monument, the region has been transformed, largely due to oil drilling in the Permian Basin.
Since his confirmation in March 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s push to trim the department he oversees while opening more public lands to energy development has been lauded by Republicans and denounced by Democrats. When it came to the budget, however, both sides agreed on one thing: No big cuts. In the omnibus federal budget, which recently passed with solid bipartisan support, Congress decided the Department of Interior was worth nearly $2.5 billion more than the administration had proposed. The Trump administration had proposed substantial budget cuts at a time of record visitations to public lands, billions of dollars of maintenance backlogs and some of the lowest staffing levels in decades at agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. But in the appropriations bill signed March 23, the Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM each received more than a quarter billion dollars more than requested, and the National Park Service got almost $650 million more than the secretary asked for.
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.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Recreational visitors to public lands have a new tool to document any damage they see and upload their report to a database. Brian Sybert is executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. He said the new mobile app, TerraTRUTH, is needed because public lands are at risk now that the Trump administration has begun easing protective regulations to allow expanded oil and gas drilling. He said hikers or other outdoor users can help track damages they see by downloading the app. “And then once that’s downloaded onto your phone, you can get out onto the ground in national monuments, national conservation lands and document, through use of the app, things that might be negative impacts on the ground,” Sybert said.
Update: In an interview with the Associated Press on Feb. 23, Zinke said he is reconsidering aspects of his planned overhaul of the Interior Department. According to the report, Interior will be moving forward with a reorganization that adheres more closely to state boundaries, though some states will continue to be split. “Western Governors are gratified that the Department of Interior has responded to their previously-stated concerns and are moving towards a state boundary-oriented approach in the latest draft map of its unified regional boundaries,” said Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors’ Association. The Department of Interior employs around 70,000 people and oversees a broad array of federal programs, from land management agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to relationships with tribal nations through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.