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AZTEC — A coalition of environmental advocacy groups, as well as the New Mexico congressional delegation, have requested that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management extend the comment period on the resource management plan amendment to 120 days due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The resource management plan amendment is for the Farmington Field Office and details plans for future oil and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The draft plan was released in late February and the comment period is scheduled to close May 28.

Environmental groups say increased drilling near the park could lead to irreversible damage of ancestral Puebloan sites.

More: BLM preferred plan could open areas within 10-mile Chaco buffer to oil, gas development

At least three letters have been sent to the Bureau of Land Management requesting that the comment period be open longer than May 28. The congressional delegation sent a letter on March 20 and the coalition followed it up with another letter on March 27.

Another letter sent on March 30 by Indigenous and environmental advocacy groups further requests the comment period be extended or suspended until after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

The March 30 letter also requests suspending new leasing and permitting activities because the coronavirus is limiting the ability for the public to respond.

All BLM offices and public rooms are currently closed and many of the locations where physical copies of the draft resource management plan amendment could be found have also closed due to the coronavirus. 

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said the industry organization supports the request to extend the deadline for public comments.

"We have not submitted a formal request at this time, but plan to do so in the near future," he said in an email.

Because of limited broadband infrastructure, some of the Navajo Nation residents who will be most impacted by the proposals outlined in the resource management plan amendment may not be able to comment. The plan includes a proposal for allowing drilling in certain areas where it has currently been withheld as part of a 10-mile buffer zone.

"The BLM has a duty to suspend all public hearings, comment periods, and lease sales to ensure those who are most affected by oil and gas development are afforded equal opportunity to provide input on development that occurs in their communities," said Carol Davis, the director of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment in a statement regarding the March 30 letter. "Indigenous communities have the added challenges of poor communication infrastructure, thus frustrating their ability to access and participate in the BLM leasing process, especially during these difficult times while they attempt to promote social distancing measures to ensure their personal and community safety."

But Power the Future, a pro-fossil fuels advocacy group, said the extension of the comment period is a delay tactic.

"At time when New Mexico’s energy industry is hurting, this thinly veiled delay tactic is pathetic,” said Larry Behrens, the western states director for Power the Future. “These are the same groups who would have no problem charging forward with eco-left methane regulations despite the fact the state can’t hold a face to face meeting.”

Power the Future has pushed for the state to delay drafting methane regulations due to the coronavirus. New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department have been tasked with drafting those rules. The two agencies moved a public input meeting to an online format rather than having a physical meeting in Farmington.

More: Webinar provided updates on New Mexico's efforts to develop methane reduction rules

“New Mexico’s energy workers are deemed essential and it’s abhorrent these groups are using a public health emergency to try and kill energy jobs," Behrens continued.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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