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Industry group petitions BLM to approve leases

James Fenton
jfenton@daily-times.com
U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor, left, and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, listen to Dabney Ford, chief of cultural resources at Chaco Culture National Historical Park on June 29, 2015, during a fact-finding tour.

FARMINGTON — A Houston-based energy industry advocacy group has appealed to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to reinstate a recently canceled oil and gas lease sale of parcels near Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Consumer Energy Alliance officials said the group collected 651 signatures from people in favor of oil and gas development around the World Heritage site. A majority of those people, the group says, reside in San Juan County.

According to a CEA press release issued on Thursday, CEA President David Holt sent a letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze to appeal the Farmington Field Office's decision last month to put off the Oct. 19 sale of three parcels on 2,122 acres.

"By cancelling this lease sale, the BLM is adding economic strain to a state that is already under duress," Holt wrote in the letter. "The reality of this decision is that New Mexico will not create new jobs, will not realize millions in private investment, and new — greatly needed — tax revenue will not be collected to support New Mexico's schools, public safety personnel and municipal services, such as road repairs." 

Holt didn’t respond to a call and text by deadline Friday. Haggstrom said that Holt was "out of the country without access to phone and email for the last two weeks."

CEA is a national, non-profit trade association with "nearly 300 affiliate members and more than 400,000 grassroots members, 3,500 of which reside in or near Farmington, according to the release. The association's website makes no mention of the letter to Kornze or the petition.

Emily Haggstrom, CEA spokeswoman, said when reached late Friday that she could not locate nor point to where the petition could be found.

James Voyles with CEA’s Washinton D.C. office said the campaign to collect signatures began shortly after the BLM decided to postpone the lease sale. Signatures, Voyles said, were collected online, primarily using social media.

Paul Reed, a Chaco scholar and a preservation archaeologist with Tucson-based Archaeology Southwest, said the hue and cry over lost revenue is short-term thinking and ignores the agency's multiyear effort to complete its drafting of the Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement for the region, which has not been revised since 2003. The draft amendment and EIS are expected sometime in 2018.

Paul Reed leading a tour at Chaco Culture National Historical Park earlier this year.

Reed has spent the last two years raising awareness about the impact of oil and gas development around the national park through tours of the park and its outlier sites. He launched a campaign called the Coalition to Protect the Greater Chaco Landscape.

The BLM has already designated the lease parcels as having low potential for fossil fuel production, which Reed said only weakens the push to drill there.

"It’s pie in the sky thinking," Reed said. "The BLM has already agreed to forgo leasing (for oil and gas production within a 10-mile radius) around Chaco. So BLM's action is completely appropriate because that’s what they said publicly they were going to do, so the industry doesn't have a leg to stand on. These areas have low potential for oil or gas development.The purported economic benefit, especially with these record low oil and gas prices, is a fairy tale."

Reed said he would like to see the protections around Chaco remain intact through the "life of the plan and EIS," which he said, given the 15 years between updated plans, would be sufficient amount of time before taking up the issue again.

Ultimately, Reed said he'd like to see Chaco and the 10-mile radius around the park protected "in perpetuity."

"The Farmington Field Office has leased 91 percent at this point, and we’d like to preserve the 9 percent that's left," Reed said. "And we don’t think that’s asking too much, for something irreplaceable and priceless as the greater Chaco landscape. We won't rest until we have these protections in place."

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