Senate Appropriations Committee removes Chaco protections from DOI bill

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee removed language from a FY2021 budget bill for the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) that would ensure the ten mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon remains in place for another year. 

In late 2019, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich were successful in adding in language to the DOI’s FY2020 appropriations bill that ensured the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would refrain from leasing parcels of land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park through FY2020, which ended in October. A continuing resolution was passed in October to extend the buffer through December 11. 

But the new appropriations bill, unveiled Tuesday by the Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee, did not contain language to extend that buffer for another year. 

The committee said it “continues to expect that the Department [of Interior] will not conduct any oil and gas leasing activities authorized by section 17 of the Mineral Leasing Act (30 U.S.C. 226) in the withdrawal area,” its explanatory statement about the appropriations. The committee pointed to cultural resources investigations that have been awarded federal funding to “identify culturally and historically significant areas and sites in areas of high energy development potential within the region” and said it expects DOI will not lease lands in the buffer “until the completion of the investigations.”

RELATED: Tribes, archaeologists are working to identify sites in Greater Chaco for protections from oil and gas

The omission could result in parcels of land within the buffer zone being made available for oil and gas development during the next leasing auction for the region, which is slated for January 2021. That will be the last leasing auction under the Trump administration. 

New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Secretary Lynn Trujillo said she was concerned about the new bill “because it would eliminate an existing prohibition on issuing oil and gas leases” in the buffer zone. 

“The greater Chaco landscape is a sacred place to New Mexico’s Pueblos and Tribes, and it has been targeted for oil and gas drilling for far too long,” Trujillo said in a statement. 

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance executive director Mark Allison said the omission “confirms that too many members of Congress value oil and gas companies over our Native communities and their shared cultural heritage.”

“It’s disheartening to see that a UNESCO World Heritage Site cherished by Tribes and Pueblos continues to be placed squarely in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry,” Allison said in a statement. 

There is a separate piece of legislation, which was sponsored by the state’s congressional delegation and which passed the House in 2019, that would permanently remove all federal public lands within ten miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future oil and gas lease sales. That bill has not had a hearing yet in the Senate.

BIA: Navajo members can ‘work around’ connectivity issues to participate in online forum on oil and gas development

Representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) told participants of a virtual meeting Wednesday that they can “work around” connectivity issues to participate in information sessions about proposed amendments to the BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the Farmington field office. 

The comments came after Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso called for the BLM to “immediately and indefinitely suspend” the amendment process, in a letter that was read aloud by Mario Atencio during the online meeting. Tso represents the northwest New Mexico Navajo Chapters Baca/Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake. “The Navajo Nation is still in the midst of an extreme public health emergency caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Tso’s letter stated, adding that for a period of time, the Navajo Nation was experiencing an infection rate that was “among the highest in the world per capita.”

“The expectation for the Navajo Nation to engage in ‘meaningful consultation’ regarding the amendment of a resource management plan while the Navajo Nation has been singularly focused on fighting the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic is extremely burdensome to the Navajo Nation,” the letter stated. 

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The BLM’s draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) was initially released in late February about a week before New Mexico recorded its first cases of COVID-19. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region. 

Tribal governments, environmental groups and members of the state’s Congressional delegation all subsequently called for the U.S. Department of the Interior to extend or halt the process until after the pandemic. 

RELATED: BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

BLM decided in early May to extend the deadline for submitting public comments by 120 days.That period ends September 25. But all of the public outreach and information sessions have since been conducted online. 

Sixty percent of Navajo Nation residents currently lack access to broadband, according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Hidden exposures: Studies point to unsafe levels of formaldehyde exposure in oil and gas communities in NM

On a hot, dusty day in August last year, a group of regulators from the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department traveled to Counselor, New Mexico, to tour the oil and gas sites that dot the landscape of the Greater Chaco region. 

The group included NMED’s Air Quality Bureau chief Elizabeth Bisbey-Kuehn, Environmental Protection Division director Sandra Ely, NMED Secretary James Kenney and EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst — all key regulatory figures in the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, tasked with developing new regulations around oil and gas emissions. Teresa Seamster, Navajo Nation Counselor Chapter Health Committee member, used the opportunity to present the findings of a recently completed health impact assessment (HIA), which found periodic spikes of formaldehyde and other pollutants associated with oil and gas development, recorded at unsafe levels for short periods of time near homes. 

“Formaldehyde is probably one of the most carcinogenic chemicals in air that you can have,” Seamster told NM Political Report. “It will cause irritation of the respiratory tract, it can lead to throat and nose cancer, chronic respiratory inflammation and bronchitis, it’s definitely something you do not want in the environment, and we were getting it in the open air at levels that require mitigation.”

“Formaldehyde was detected at all sites at unhealthy levels,” she added. 

Seamster and other volunteers from the chapter conducted the study under the guidance of the Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit public health organization that conducts scientific air quality monitoring for communities near oil and gas development. The report is currently unpublished — and will likely remain so until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and the Navajo Nation government is able to reopen — but NM Political Report obtained a copy. It’s also the latest in a growing body of evidence, codified into multiple peer-reviewed studies conducted across the country, that indicates communities situated near oil and gas development are exposed to hazardous pollution at higher levels than either state or federal regulatory agencies recognize.

BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to move forward with a public engagement process for plans to expand drilling in the Greater Chaco region, even as the communities in northwestern New Mexico, who are currently struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, have repeatedly requested an extension to the process.  

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the BLM released a draft amendment to the Farmington field office resource management plan (RMP) and environmental impact statement in late February, kicking off a public comment period that ends on May 28. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region.  

As the COVID-19 outbreak has spread across the state, local community groups in the Greater Chaco region requested the BLM extend the public comment period during the public health emergency. That call was echoed by the state government, the congressional delegation, and tribal leaders. All told, three separate letters were sent to the Department of Interior requesting the comment be extended. As of Friday, none have received a response, according to officials. 

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Meanwhile, populations in the northwest corner of the state, including communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, have been pummeled by COVID-19.