May 18, 2021

Heinrich requests protecting Chaco from oil and gas leasing

Laura Paskus

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Sen. Martin Heinrich sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland requesting an area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park be protected from future oil and gas development.

Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, asked Haaland to administratively withdraw the federal minerals within a 10-mile radius of the park from leasing.

This would provide time for legislation to be passed that permanently sets the area aside from leasing. Heinrich said in the letter that he plans to reintroduce this legislation and is working with other members of the New Mexico Congressional delegation to do so. 

“As that legislation moves through the process on Capitol Hill, an administrative withdrawal would provide interim protection until permanent protection can be secured legislatively,” he wrote.

Haaland has supported such initiatives in the past. As a congresswoman, she was one of the sponsors of the Chaco Culture Heritage Protection Act of 2019 that would have codified the 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. While this bill ultimately received approval from the U.S. House of Representatives, it did not make it through the U.S. Senate.

Related: House passage a ‘major step forward’ for protecting Chaco Canyon

The Greater Chaco landscape is sacred to several Native American groups, including the Laguna Pueblo. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo.

Advocates for the 10-mile buffer argue that oil and gas development could damage the sacred sites and cultural resources in the area and that toxic emissions harm the health of nearby Navajo communities. They also argue that oil and gas development could lead to contamination of the already scarce water resources or deplete those water resources. Additionally, some say the flaring of natural gas and lighting at facilities will increase light pollution and detract from the night sky. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park.

Meanwhile, opponents say that existing laws require oil and gas companies to ensure their operations do not impact cultural resources including archaeological sites. They argue that leasing provides jobs and economic opportunities in the area.

Federal minerals within the buffer zone have been withdrawn from oil and gas development for the past decade through a variety of methods, which Heinrich highlighted in his letter.

“From deferred leasing parcels, to repeated one-year moratoriums, to a requirement to complete a cultural resources study prior to any new leasing, communities who care about protecting the Chaco landscape have had to fight again and again to gain short-term protection from encroaching energy development,” he wrote. “It is time to move from short term policies that shift every year to the long-term certainty provided by an administrative withdrawal of the federal mineral resources in the vicinity of the park.”

These actions were taken as the Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office completed the Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan amendment. This amendment process came following allegations that the BLM had not adequately evaluated the impact of new technologies like horizontal drilling in the Greater Chaco region.

The BLM, in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, completed a draft resource management plan amendment last year. A record of decision has not yet been released.

The draft resource management plan amendment recommends allowing drilling within that 10-mile buffer zone.

The State Land Office, which manages some of the land in the area, has implemented a moratorium on new leases within the 10-mile radius.