Judge dismisses Chaco-area drilling lawsuit

A Staff and Wire Report
Visitors walk to an ancestral Puebloan ruin June 2013 at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Environmental activists are regrouping after a federal judge Monday 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 an opinion and an amended order late Monday determining federal land managers did not violate historic preservation laws since they considered the effects of the wells on historical sites.

MORE:Zinke places Chaco Canyon drilling leases on hold, pending cultural review

The decision comes in a long-running dispute over management of vast expanses of land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Efforts in recent years to petition the federal government to set aside large parts of the Chaco region as an area of critical environmental concern have been unsuccessful.

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.

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.
Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, 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. 

MORE:Judge rejects one claim by environmental groups, affirms another

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) released statements Tuesday 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.

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.”

The judge 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.” 

MORE:Putting the Chaco Canyon debate in perspective

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, calling the plaintiff’s numbers “bloated.”

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.” 

BLM’s established 10-mile buffer zone around the park remains in effect. 

John R. Moses of The Farmington Daily Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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