Groups petition Interior Department to not go forward with Chaco oil leasing

Sep. 20—Tribal advocates and environmentalists have sent a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, condemning the Bureau of Land Management's decision to uphold oil and gas leases from the era of former President Donald Trump on 45,000 acres in the Chaco Canyon area.

The BLM, which is part of the Interior Department, paused the leases in April to reconsider them after environmentalists sued the agency, then quietly gave the go-ahead for all the leases on July 31, angering opponents.

A coalition of more than 50 groups sent Haaland a letter with a 5,000-signature petition attached, calling on her to reverse the decision to approve leases they contend were based on sketchy analyses that didn't cover effects on climate, air, water and tribal communities.

This latest conflict has flared up as the administration of President Joe Biden looks to create a 10-mile buffer zone around the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in Northwest New Mexico and Haaland gathers input from tribes on creating broader protections in the region through discussions she calls the Honoring Chaco Initiative.

"There is, on the one hand, [cultural] recognition that we're seeing by the administration, and then on the other hand permits are being approved and leases are being defended," said Kyle Tisdale, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney who has assisted with litigation. "It's that disconnect that I think is really confusing for folks."

Given the harmful impacts, the agency should cancel the leases, Tisdale said.

BLM approved the leases after declaring they would have no significant impact, a finding with which Tisdale and other opponents of Chaco oil operations disagree.

Wells will be drilled, and fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — will take place on land south of Chaco Historic Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However, some of the leased parcels overlap the Sisnaateel Mesa Complex, which is considered important to Diné heritage and cosmology. Diné is the Native term for Navajo.

A BLM spokesman emphasized all of the leases are outside the historic park, adding the agency would involve tribes in discussions.

"The BLM [is] committed to updating the environmental analysis underpinning these leases including a number of public meetings and a comment period," agency spokesman Richard Packer wrote in an email. "As we continue to do additional analysis of the associated applications for permit to drill, there will be additional opportunities for public input."

A conservation advocate said the proposed 10-mile buffer is an arbitrary boundary, with many areas of historic and cultural significance lying outside of it and deserving protection.

BLM is approving leases whose broader, cumulative effects on the landscape were never analyzed, said Miya King-Flaherty, organizing representative for the Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter.

People have raised concerns about public health, groundwater pollution and methane emissions, King-Flaherty said.

"Those are still kind of ongoing issues that the bureau has not analyzed significantly," she said.

The fossil fuel industry has expressed opposition to policies that severely restrict or bar oil and gas operations in the Chaco region. Industry representatives couldn't be reached Monday to comment on the leases being jump-started.

A tribal advocate said the Biden BLM is fast-tracking leases the agency failed to vet thoroughly under the National Environmental Protection Act.

No one in charge has really examined the harmful effects the additional drilling and fracking would have on communities already subjected to heavy pollution, especially those who live much closer to oil operations than they should, said Mario Attanasio, greater Chaco energy organizer for Dine C.A.R.E.

"We've never had anybody talk to us about environmental justice," Attanasio said.

The focus is always on the money that might be gained or lost, including for certain tribal members, if drilling is restricted, Attanasio said.

Some Navajo landowners with oil drilling on their parcels, known as allottees, oppose restrictions, though none of the limits would apply directly to their land.

They worry that having no-drill federal parcels wedged against theirs could lower their property values.

King-Flaherty noted some allottees support curbing activities that could foul the resources they and others depend on.

"It's a very divisive issue," she said.

Tisdale said no one was surprised when the Trump administration tried to push through the leases while overlooking potential impacts.

"But the fact the Biden administration is upholding those leasing decisions is certainly disappointing for our clients," Tisdale said.