Rulings leave Chaco in limbo 

By Miya King-Flaherty, Our Wild New Mexico

A mixed bag of recent court decisions are key for determining the fate of fracking and drilling in New Mexico hot spots.

In April, U.S. District Judge James Browning, a George W. Bush appointee presiding over a 2015 lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office, ruled that the BLM did not violate the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act by opening Greater Chaco to horizontal fracking under a 2003 management plan that doesn’t analyze the impacts of fracking.

This was a real surprise, given Browning’s earlier preliminary ruling that the BLM did violate the National Environmental Policy Act.

Western Environmental Law Center, representing Diné CARE and San Juan Citizens Alliance, has appealed to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, where plaintiffs hope for an outcome similar to another big ruling in June.

Environmentalists won their legal challenge against the BLM Farmington Office’s attempt to lease minerals on 19,788 acres of Santa Fe National Forest land, which also encompases the Greater Chaco region. The groups involved in the lawsuit include the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné C.A.R.E (Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment), Amigos Bravos, WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club.

The court agreed that the BLM failed to adequately analyze the full life cycle of oil and gas emissions, including their indirect and cumulative effects on people and the environment. Additionally, the BLM failed to analyze the water-quantity impacts from horizontal fracking in the region. This is significant, especially when the state is experiencing drought conditions. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service must now perform a true analysis of fracking impacts on the Santa Fe National Forest.

As you may remember, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke deferred the auction of thousands of acres of land in Greater Chaco to oil and gas drilling in March. The Sierra Club and the Protect Greater Chaco Coalition anticipate those parcels of land to resurface during the December 2018 lease period.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, WildEarth Guardians revealed that the oil and gas industry has submitted more than 200 “Expressions of Interest” for drilling in Greater Chaco since January, including 24 parcels within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and 125 parcels within 20 miles. Initial estimates are that industry has requested for the BLM to lease more than 55,000 acres of additional Greater Chaco public land, which is already 91 percent leased out to oil and gas.

Under the current policy, the BLM must process Expressions of Interest within six months of receipt so they can be offered for leasing as soon as possible. This means we may see more parcels up for auction later this year than were in the March lease sale.

We can still do something about this. The BLM received 459 protest comments opposing the March 2018 lease sale, more than any oil and gas lease the state has received. That prompted the current administration to delay the lease sale, and supported our congressional delegates’ efforts to protect the region.

There will be a 10-day comment period to protest any upcoming parcels. Please watch for emails from Rio Grande Chapter for updates on how you can participate.

In spite of the obstacles we face, this will be a critical year for addressing the existing and future impacts of oil and gas development in Greater Chaco. The BLM Farmington Field Office is expected to publicly release its draft Environmental Impact Assessment as an amendment to the 2003 Resource Management Plan later this summer.

It is likely that the proposed management alternatives will prioritize oil and gas leasing, and there likely won’t be a “no leasing” option. However, there will then be a 90-public comment period, and you can participate. We will continue to call for an immediate moratorium and for strong environmental and public health safeguards.

Featured image – Fajada Butte Chaco by Joey Kujawski

Rulings leave Chaco in limbo 
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