photo of chaco canyon national park entrance for sierra club article on oil drilling in nearby communities

By Miya King-Flaherty, Our Wild New Mexico

In December, Congress passed an appropriations package that bans new oil and gas leasing for a year within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park until an ethnographic study for the region is completed. The Navajo Nation and pueblos will have significant control over the study, so this is a great step in the right direction.

Additionally, passage of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act in the U.S. House in October brings hope to a region already besieged by over 40,000 oil and gas wells. The bill withdraws unleased federal minerals from new oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The next hurdle will be passage in the U.S. Senate. Although the bill has received broad support and incorporates recommendations provided by the Greater Chaco Coalition, including the need for additional studies on public-health impacts of oil and gas development in the area, it has its fair share of opposition, including from industry.

If passed, the federal Chaco bill would prevent oil and gas drilling and leasing on more than 300,000 acres of a 909,000-acre area. The bill, however, does not prevent new drilling on already leased lands in the buffer, nor does it prohibit Navajo allottees from developing their mineral rights within the buffer should they wish.

Oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco region has already sowed discord within communities and families. Many homes still lack running water or electricity and there are few options for viable employment. Although industry provides some community members with economic options, it has also come at a cost to so many others. Communities experience diminished air quality through venting and flaring, increased vehicular traffic and accidents, dangerous road conditions, the loss of cultural sites, and much more.

As federal legislation to protect the immediate vicinity of the Park is pending, the Bureau of Land Management still approves drilling permits and is gearing up to lease over 1,300 acres at a Feb. 6 lease sale. Over 90% percent of public lands managed by the BLM in northwestern New Mexico are already leased.

The formal 10-day protest period to oppose the February lease sale was Dec. 9-18, and more than 600 of you answered our call to lodge a protest comment.

Just recently, the BLM finally responded to public protests submitted opposing the December 2018 lease sale. It took nearly a year for the BLM to respond to a high volume of comments the public submitted, demonstrating that our tactics are having an impact. The BLM must resolve all protests before it can release lands for actual development.

Some groups are challenging the BLM’s decision to resolve protests, further delaying oil and gas development on the leased parcels. Until the BLM imposes an immediate moratorium on all fracking-related activities, engages in meaningful tribal consultation, initiates a full environmental, social and health impact assessment, and provides communities with alternative economic development opportunities, we’ll continue to prioritize environmental justice and protection of ancestral tribal and public lands.

Chaco appropriation passed into law