Environmental groups sue BLM over horizontal drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A coalition of environmental groups have asked a federal judge to stop oil and gas production near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The groups sought an injunction on Monday against the Bureau of Land Management's permitting of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling activity near Chaco.

The suit, which names the BLM and the U.S. Interior Department as defendants, argues that the federal government is putting the environment, public health and the region's cultural resources at risk.

Sarah Jane White of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, who lives in Little Water and is an allottee in the Chaco area, said in a press release on Monday that the BLM should more thoroughly consider all the relevant impacts that fracking in the Chaco area represents before it issues any more drilling permits. Her group along with San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, the National Resources Defense Council are plaintiffs in Monday's lawsuit. They are represented by attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians.

"We need to put a stop to fracking in the Greater Chaco region because it impacts the living peoples, the water, air, wildlife, medicinal plants, and (sacred) offering points," White said in the release. "BLM needs to seriously consider all these impacts before approving any more oil and gas leases."

In December, the BLM said it would defer issuing new leases on 2,803 acres within a 10-mile radius around Chaco park in response to a protest filed by environmental groups that demanded the agency suspend fracking on public lands near the Chaco park.

But groups sued again in March arguing that the BLM had not yet completed a thorough study of the impacts that horizontal drilling poses to public health, the environment and cultural resources around Chaco.

Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the alarm and litigation is unwarranted.

"I think it's more shameless fundraising and alarmism," Henke said. "The facts are that Chaco has not and has never been threatened by ongoing oil and gas development."

Henke added that the degree of oil and gas development is covered by BLM's 2003 plan.

"The reality is that the level of development we're seeing was analyzed by the 2003 plan and environmental impact statement," Henke said. "Their banner of protecting the greater Chaco complex really rings hollow in light of the existing protections."

This fall, the BLM's Farmington Field Office is expected to release a draft of its amended resource management plan and accompanying environmental impact statement, according to Donna Hummel, BLM spokeswoman. The last plan the BLM issued was in 2003, before much of the latest technologies used in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing became as commonplace as it is today, she said.

Hummel declined to comment on the lawsuit. She said it's appropriate for the public to be involved, but the focus on the BLM is surprising, considering that the BLM oversees only 19 percent of the lease land in the checkerboard area near Chaco.

"The upswell of people expressing concern over this type of development by the industry, they are entitled to that," Hummel said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "We need to hear what the people are thinking. Their input is all considered in the drafting of (BLM's plan and environmental impact statement). But someone else — the state, the (tribe), the private allottees — manage 81 percent. To me, we've failed miserably when we get people calling and crying on the phone to us, saying, 'You've got to stop destroying Chaco canyon.'"

Kyle Tisdel, climate and energy program director at the Western Environmental Law Center, said BLM's continued permitting of fracking around Chaco park is illegal without a plan in place.

Tisdel said the agency has approved more than 240 new permits to drill near the community of Lybrook and within 20 miles of Chaco Canyon.

"For the (BLM) to continue to allow fracking in such a sensitive area with no analysis of its effects will irreparably harm the people who live there, unique cultural resources and the climate" Tisdel said in the release. "The fracking permits already approved are unlawful, and issuing new fracking permits without any information on the effects is unconscionable."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.