The BLM's environmental assessment states leasing the public land for oil and gas development would not have "significant impacts" on the environment
FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation officials and residents will travel to Santa Fe next week to meet with the Bureau of Land Management's state director in hopes of persuading her to delay or cancel a planned oil and gas lease auction for land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
An online sale scheduled for Jan. 25 would auction off about 843 acres near the the park. The leases already have been challenged and delayed three times.
In a press release issued today, the BLM confirmed the online sale will start at 9 a.m. on Jan 25. Four parcels will be auctioned, including three in Sandoval County totaling about 401 acres and one parcel in Rio Arriba County that's a little more than 441 acres.
Daniel Tso, a former Torreon council delegate, is organizing the meeting in Santa Fe, which will take place at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the BLM's state office in Santa Fe.
He said presidents from Torreon, Ojo Encino, Counselor and Nageezi chapters, as well as five Navajos who live on some of the parcels in question, plan to attend the meeting. The group will meet with Amy Lueders, director of New Mexico's BLM office, and deliver a petition against the sale and other documents protesting the auction. A press conference is scheduled following the meeting.
"The fact is there are people living on these parcels, and even though it's tribal trust land, the federal government retained the mineral rights," Tso said. "There's already over 75,000 acres leased in this corridor, with oil and gas companies having over 300 wells and some of them haven’t even been started."
The parcels are about 20 miles outside Chaco Culture National Historical Park, said Miya King-Flaherty, a public lands fellow with the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club in Albuquerque.
"These parcels were nominated for leasing in 2012 and are authorized under the Mineral Leasing Act and our 2003 (Resource Management Plan)," said Zach Stone, spokesman for the BLM Farmington field office, in an email. "We have deferred any leases within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park."
Donna Hummel, a spokeswoman for the state's BLM office, said, "The environmental assessment for the parcels (up for lease) has been completed and is available on the BLM's website."
The unsigned environmental assessment, dated Jan. 18, 2017, states that leasing the parcels "is not expected to have significant impacts on the environment," and adds that a more intensive environmental impact statement is not warranted.
"What we continue to work on are seven protests that came in late in the process," Hummel said. "These have to be addressed, and that's the only thing that hasn't been fully resolved."
Hummel said BLM regulations allow the agency to offer the leases for sale, but the leases cannot be issued to the successful bidders until the protests are resolved, either through mitigation or by placing stipulations on them.
If a protest is unable to be resolved and the lease needs to be withdrawn, the BLM would refund the buyer, she said.
The BLM Farmington field office has been holding scoping meetings to gather public input about oil and gas exploration on tribal lands. But Tso said the agency has not finalized its Resource Management Plan or fully evaluated the environmental impact of drilling in these areas. He said the BLM should hold off on the auction until that is completed.
"You realize there are health impacts, not only physical but mental aspects," Tso said. "The ruts in the roads (caused by industry traffic) are 3 feet deep in some places and affect school bus routes. Back when oil was $100 a barrel, traffic was running all night long and interrupting school kids' sleep, which interfered with their school work. These impacts aren’t visible in downtown Farmington or on the highways, but people who live there see the impacts."
Stone, the BLM Farmington office spokesman, said the bureau will continue to develop and review alternatives to proposed actions. He said the agency will use the 2003 Resource Management Plan until the Resource Management Plan Amendment is completed. The amendment is currently being developed.
Stone added that all leases are issued with stipulations on oil and gas activities in an effort to protect the environment. The stipulations may include limits on when drilling can occur or restrictions on surface occupancy.
"I think this may be the first time in history federal agencies are paying attention to what local people's concerns are," said Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie, adding that he is considering attending the meeting in Santa Fe. "But we’re concerned that, at the same time, the BLM is making overtures and has already released information on these parcels of land. They’re saying one thing and doing something different on the flip side."
King-Flaherty, with the Sierra Club, said, "I think it’s important to note that 91 percent of public lands in this area has been leased for oil and gas extraction. Oil and gas exploration has been taking a higher priority over people. The BLM hasn’t analyzed the public health, air quality and environmental impacts of fracking, so it’s important that they propose a moratorium on all fracking until the process of determining impacts is complete."
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Hummel said the number of participants in next week's meeting in Santa Fe will be limited, but she said she understands a larger gathering may take place outside the building.
"The meeting is by invitation only, because we want to be able to explain how the parcels were chosen and give time to answer questions," she said. "The state director is always willing to listen and to try to improve tribal relations."
Details about the lease sale are on the BLM's website.
Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.