Culture under siege – again
Farmington BLM opens Chaco area to more oil and gas lease sales

Culture under siege – again

Chaco Canyon's Bonita Pueblo. Although there is a 10-mile buffer around the park, several parcels immediately outside the buffer are open to drilling. The Greater Chaco Area is home to untold thousands of ancient artifacts./Courtesy photo

Missy Votel - 10/12/2017

Less than nine months after a highly controversial oil and gas lease sale, Chaco Canyon is under attack again. Last month, the Farmington BLM Office announced an open comment period on 25 proposed gas and oil leases in Northwest New Mexico totaling more than 4,400 acres – including eight parcels comprising 1,850 acres within 20 miles of the park. At least one of the parcels is immediately adjacent to the 10-mile buffer around the park, with several more within a few miles.

The proposed sale comes even as tribes, New Mexico legislators and environmentalists have asked for a halt on drilling in the area as the BLM completes an update of its resource management plan. The plan, last updated in 2003, pre-dated horizontal drilling and thus did not consider the rich Mancos shale surrounding Chaco, which only became accessible in recent years with the advent of fracking. Now in the scoping process, plans call for the updated plan to be finished by 2019.

“It’s more, if not just as, concerning as the last sale,” Emily Bowie, campaign director with San Juan Citizens Alliance, said Wednesday. “The big thing is (the BLM) keeps doing this, despite requests not to. They don’t have their resource management plan finished, so there aren’t proper 

protections in place for the communities surrounding the Chaco area.”

Thecommentperiodfortheleases,which opened Sept. 19, closes Fri., Oct. 20. The online lease sale takes place March 8, 2018. Four more parcels, totaling 773 acres, were removed from the March sale to “allow time for additional impact analysis and tribal consultation,” according to the BLM’s draft environmental analysis on the sale.

In January 2017, oil and gas drilling rights to 843 acres in the Chaco area sold for $3 million, despite public outcry. The sale of the parcels had been postponed three times since 2012.

Formally known as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the 53-square-mile park is managed by the National Parks Service. From 850-1250 A.D., it was home to the Ancestral Puebloans and its massive buildings exhibit engineering abilities not seen anywhere else in the Southwest. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a world Dark Sky Park for its famously unfettered nighttime views of the Milky Way.

In addition, Chaco was the epicenter of a vast and mysterious network of as many as 230 outlier ancient Puebloan settlements, known as the “Greater Chaco Area.” It is believed to hold untold thousands of undiscovered archaeological sites and artifacts. Several descendants of its indigenous inhabitants still call the area home, and Chaco Canyon holds sacred significance to them.

According to the San Juan Citizens Alliance, 91 percent of public lands in northwest New Mexico are leased for oil and gas drilling with much of the last untouched 9 percent in Greater Chaco.

The drilling also presents environmental concerns due to methane emissions. The Farmington area is home to the country’s largest concentration of methane emissions, 

known as the “Four Corners Hot Spot.” Methane pollution has been linked to numerous health and respiratory problems in addition to being a potent greenhouse gas.

Lease purchasers have the right to use as much of the leased mineral estate as necessary for drilling and exploration. The leases are issued for a 10-year period and continue for “as long thereafter as oil or gas is produced in paying quantities,” as per the BLM.

Although SJCA currently has a lawsuit to stop the drilling making its way through the courts, the legal system takes time. And 2019 may come too late.

“In the meantime, they’ve drilled over 400 wells in the area that’s not covered by the existing resource management plan, and they plan to drill until 2020 when the plan is released,” said Bowie. “Does that plan really matter if we drill the whole area first?”

The draft EA can be viewed at www.blm.gov/programs/energy-and-minerals/oil-and-gas/leasing/regional-lease-sales/new-mexico. Comments will be accepted through Oct. 20 and can be emailed to NMleasesalecomments @blm.gov with “March 2018 Lease Parcels” in the subject line. Mail handwritten comments to Ross Klein, BLM New Mexico State Office, 301 Dinosaur Trail, Santa Fe, N.M., 87502.