Appeal planned in lawsuit over drilling near Chaco historic park

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is pictured.

An appeal is likely in the lawsuit brought against the Bureau of Land Management, part of a long-running dispute over management of the land around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, according to an attorney for the plaintiffs.

A federal judge last month tossed a lawsuit against the federal government regarding drilling permits in the San Juan Basin, including sites near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Despite an earlier ruling that signaled the claims had merit, United States District Court Judge James Browning issued a lengthy opinion and an amended order determining federal land managers did not violate historic preservation laws since they considered the effects of the wells on historical sites.

Activists want the federal government to set aside large parts of the Chaco region as an area of critical environmental concern. The BLM has a 10-mile buffer zone in effect.

A world heritage site, Chaco park and its outlying archaeological remnants include massive stone structures, kivas and other features that archaeologists believe offered something of a religious or ritualistic experience. Many of the structures are aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.

Appeal is the next step

“The next step would be an appeal to the 10th Circuit,” said Western Environmental Law Center attorney Kyle Tisdel. “I do anticipate that an appeal will be filed.”

Tisdel said Judge Browning’s ruling “obviously was quite voluminous and took us off on quite a journey.”

The judge's ruling reshaped much of the legal landscape put forth by the plaintiffs, cutting the number of wells listed by the plaintiffs in the suit as challenged wells and calling the plaintiffs' estimates "bloated."

Browning ultimately ruled that “BLM adequately considered potential impacts near oil and gas wells. Chaco Canyon and related sites are outside the zone of the challenged wells' impacts.” 

The judge narrowed the number of wells considered in the case from almost 4,000 well sites to 350 active sites and some inactive sites.

The judge also found that even though a 2003 environmental impact study did not consider the since-developed technology involved in horizontal drilling as a factor, the judge called that insignificant. That drilling method results in fewer drill sites and, thus, less physical impact on the environment, the ruling states.

The final ruling also notes that in 2003 BLM expected 9,942 wells in the region, and presently there are 3,945.

Browning’s final order states that the court dismissed the suit “with prejudice.”

Tisdel said the ruling imposed “a narrow view” of BLM’s responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act.

Suit was filed in 2015

The lawsuit claimed U.S. Bureau of Land Management didn’t enforce the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) when it reviewed and approved permits near the park and at other locations in the basin. 

The suit was filed in 2015 by Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Wild Earth Guardians.

Tisdel said the court case is one part of a broader campaign that still includes an overhaul of the resource management plan that guides development decisions for the region.

The Bureau of Land Management has been working on updating that plan, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in March halted a quarterly oil and gas lease sale over concerns about cultural impacts after hundreds of people protested.

Zinke said he wanted more time for his agency to complete an ongoing analysis of nearly 5,500 cultural sites in the area.

"Not only are we talking about historic properties — some of the highest historic properties anywhere in the country — but we're talking about tribal people who still live in that landscape and have a cultural connection and relationship to that landscape," Tisdel said.

Industry group lauds decision

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) released statements last month lauding the dismissal.

NMOGA has been a vocal critic of the lawsuit, and other legal actions aimed at stopping the Trump Administration’s plans to roll back protections crafted during the term of former president Barack Obama, including methane waste reduction rules NMOGA says will hurt the industry.

“Protecting the environment and maintaining New Mexico’s cultural treasures are of the utmost importance, and are a priority for every oil and natural gas operator. This decision underscores those commitments, and affirms the extraordinary steps taken to ensure responsible energy development on public lands,” said Ryan Flynn, NMOGA’s executive director.

Andreanne Catt, left, and Lauren Howland prepared to join a group of runners Monday in Farmington who gathered at the Bureau of Land Management office in June of 2017 as part of a protest over extraction activities near the Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Flynn then took aim the legal tactics used by environmental groups.

“Judge Browning’s decision is a rejection of obstructionist practices routinely employed by activist groups to disrupt the oil and natural gas industry, New Mexico’s primary economic engine,” Flynn said in his statement. “This was never a case about the merits, it was yet another moment for activists to hijack economic growth for our state and put a halt to badly needed revenue for our schools and roads.”

Flynn called Judge Browning’s ruling “a staunch rebuke to allegations leveled by activists that BLM did not adequately consider environmental and historical impacts according to the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.”

Note: This story has been expanded from its original version to include new developments in the progress of the lawsuit.