BLM postpones sale of Chaco leases

James Fenton
A Denver-based oil and gas industry group claims the Bureau of Land Management, which operates this field office in Farmington, is not holding quarterly lease sales for drilling on public lands as required by law.

FARMINGTON — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has announced that a planned October leasing auction of parcels intended for oil and gas development will be postponed until at least January.

The BLM's Farmington Field Office decided to cancel the Oct. 19 sale of three parcels, or 2,122 acres, of public land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site.

BLM officials said the decision, announced Monday, will provide more time to complete required analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and to consult with area tribes over the parcels.

The BLM puts up public land for auction for oil and gas development four times each year.

Rick Fields, the new field manager at the Farmington Field Office, said the decision to postpone was not made because of legal action by environmental groups or insufficient staffing at the field office.

Instead, he said, Victoria Barr, the field office's district manager, determined the agency had, thus far, done an "inadequate job."

"We wanted to include all of the tribes who have an interest in the Chaco region," Fields said. There are about 25 tribes — Navajo Nation, Hopi, Jicarilla Apache and about 22 pueblos — to consult with over the parcels, he said.

Fields said he wasn't sure tribal consultation efforts had progressed beyond the "reaching out" stage.

Also, Fields said NEPA analysis work was determined to not be "comprehensive enough."

Everrett Garcia Sr., a member of the Acoma Historic Preservation Office board, climbs a hill on June 23, 2015, to reach a portion of Pierre's Ruins 20 miles north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Confusion over the parcels arose in March when a coalition of environmental groups believed the BLM had already deferred the three leases.

At the end of 2014, the BLM deferred issuing any new leases on 2,803 acres within a 10-mile radius around Chaco in response to a protest filed by environmental groups.

According to BLM spokeswoman Lisa Morrison, the three parcels are located about 20-miles northeast of the park, and about 15 miles from Pueblo Pintado, an outlier site considered to be a “Chacoan great house" that served as a civic and ceremonial center 800 to 1,000 years ago.

Last summer, Larry Turk, Chaco park and Aztec Ruins superintendent, told Sen. Tom Udall during the lawmaker's visit to Chaco that he wanted to ultimately see a 20-miles zone of protection from development established.

Morrison said the leases could go up for auction in January if the NEPA and tribal consultation work are concluded.

The BLM's Farmington Field Office is expected to release a draft of its amended resource management plan and accompanying environmental impact statement as early as this fall, according to Sheila Mallory, BLM Minerals Division deputy director. The last plan the BLM issued was in 2003, before much of the latest technologies used in multi-stage horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing became commonplace.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is seen on Oct. 6, 2014, during a flight over Chaco Canyon.

Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance energy and climate programs manager in Farmington, said postponing the sale was good news, but he said years of slow progress leave him convinced the BLM is dysfunctional or biased toward the oil and gas industry.

"Let’s get rid of the well pads across the scarred landscape," Eisenfeld said. "The Farmington Field Office has already leased 90 percent of the land. They are still without a (Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement for the region). The BLM has proved to be inept."

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Wally Drangmeister said the cry against the sale of parcels is a transparent attempt by environmentalists to slow or stop oil and gas development altogether.

"There have been a number of groups that have used the Chaco issue as a tool to slow down the industry," Drangmeister said. "There are a lot of protections already in place. It's disappointing that the BLM took this action. ... While new drilling activity is low today, it's disappointing because actions like these take away a company's ability to position for future activity. It's less about the cultural concerns and more aimed at stifling the industry."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.