Environmental coalition sues BLM over 2018 lease sale in Sandoval County near Chaco Canyon

Energy industry spokesman says groups are using a tactic to try to disrupt state's 'largest and most successful industry'

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
WildEarth Guardians senior climate and energy campaigner Rebecca Sobel participates in a discussio, May 19, 2019, during a working group meeting at San Juan College.

AZTEC — A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Bureau of Land Management regarding a lease sale of 30 parcels in the Rio Puerco Field Office.

The parcels are located near the Farmington Field Office territory and close to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The coalition of environmental groups includes the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment.

WildEarth Guardians senior climate and energy campaigner Rebecca Sobel described the suit as the strongest environmental justice claim the nonprofit organization has brought against the BLM, in part because of recent court rulings and also because the BLM environmental assessment mentioned that the Native American and Hispanic communities could be impacted but did not do further analysis.

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Thirty parcels in the Rio Puerco Field Office were nominated in the summer of 2018 for inclusion in the December 2018 lease sale. These parcels are adjacent to the Counselor, Torreon and Ojo Encino chapters of the Navajo Nation.

The parcels are located in the greater Chaco region, less than 30 miles to the east of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and just west of U.S. Highway 550. The parcels are in Sandoval County near its border with San Juan and Rio Arriba counties.

"The BLM's leasing decisions are fully compliant with all applicable laws," the BLM said in an email statement to The Daily Times. "The environmental and cultural resource review process for developing oil and gas resources is multi-faceted and includes input and coordination from the public and Federal, state and Tribal interests. The BLM will continue to take actions that further our national interests and help meet our domestic energy needs in a responsible manner, consistent with our sustained yield, multiple-use mandate."

The plaintiffs' arguments

Sobel said there are three main arguments in the case, including the Rio Puerco Field Office operating on an outdated resource management plan, a failure to adequately analyze the impacts of oil and gas on tribal communities and the short comment period of 10 days.

A group including Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., walk May 28, 2019, toward Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“These tactics and this strategy is not unique to this instance, nor is it unique to this field office,” said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “The same groups who filed this suit engage in these kinds of disruptive tactics anytime anywhere to ensure that New Mexico’s economic opportunity through oil and gas is limited and reduced. This strategy only seems to disrupt New Mexico’s largest and most successful industry at a time when we really need to be focusing on strategies and opportunities to create jobs and to draw investment to New Mexico.”

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Sobel said it is no secret that WildEarth Guardians has been challenging every oil and gas decision that the BLM has made in New Mexico recently. She said WildEarth Guardians and the other environmental groups see the potential health impacts and the climate crisis as greater considerations than the potential for economic development and job creation. Sobel said oil and gas development should be phased out in light of the climate crisis the world is currently facing.

“The oil and gas that is currently in production can more than meet our current demand for the next 40 to 50 years,” Sobel said. “And we would say that the climate crisis dictates the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels in a time period shorter than the next 40 to 50 years.”

Team members with GRID Alternatives and students from Fort Lewis College install solar panels on March 7, 2018, at the Ojo Encino Chapter house.

Sobel said policy makers need to draft laws and regulations aimed at steering New Mexico to a just transition from fossil fuels that will provide economic opportunities.

“Nobody’s saying we can flip the switch tomorrow,” Sobel said. “That’s unrealistic.”

However, she said oil and gas extraction operations should be ratcheted back.

The suit states that the BLM must analyze the emissions that will result from the proposed development and how those emissions will impact the climate.

An outdated plan

The Rio Puerco Field Office’s most recent resource management plan is dated 1986, the lawsuit highlights. Sobel said it did not take into account industrial oil and gas development.

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This is similar to the case that led to the Farmington Field Office’s draft amendment of its 2003 resource management plan. The draft was released for public comment earlier this year. The BLM began the process in 2014 after acknowledging that the 2003 plan did not consider some of the new methods and technologies such as horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing.

Sobel said while the Farmington Field Office’s 2003 plan did not look at horizontal drilling or multistage fracturing, the Rio Puerco Field Office’s 1986 plan fails to evaluate large-scale oil and gas development.

San Juan Citizens Alliance energy and climate manager Mike Eisenfeld echoed Sobel’s statements. Eisenfeld said the “really dated management plan” never brought up the idea of large amounts of oil and gas drilling.

A group protests hydraulic fracturing in the Greater Chaco region in this undated file photo from a protest at the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office.

“They didn’t do their due diligence, and now they’re in litigation,” Eisenfeld said.

Sobel and Eisenfeld said oil and gas extraction in the San Juan Basin is moving southward.

“This is creeping on down toward Cabezon,” Eisenfeld said.

The potential impact

Sobel warned that as that activity moves south, it crosses the continental divide and could impact the watersheds that Albuquerque and the greater Bernalillo area rely on.

But McEntyre called the claim that the 1986 plan doesn’t adequately analyze oil and gas development a “red herring.” He said technology has improved in the past couple of decades that has made oil and gas extraction much less damaging to the environment than it was when the 1986 resource management plan was drafted.

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“We’re producing energy more cleanly and safely than we ever have before,” he said.

Still, the environmental groups allege the development of the 30 leases will lead to increased water contamination and air pollution while also leading to the industrialization of the rural, greater Chaco landscape. Environmental advocates say the air pollution can lead to health problems, including respiratory issues.

Sobel said the proposed oil and gas drilling requires extensive subsurface infrastructure, including pipelines, and produces waste that must be handled. All of this leads to what she described as the industrializing of the landscape.

In an environmental assessment, the BLM acknowledged that the development will primarily impact Native Americans in the Navajo Nation chapters and Hispanic communities near Cuba.

Protesters make anti-fracking signs in June 2015 during a rally against oil and gas drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The rally took place at the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office.

"This lease sale will have a direct impact on the Diné communities of Ojo Encino, Torreon and others," said Wendy Atcitty, New Mexico energy organizer for Diné CARE in a press release. "Within the nearly 41,000 acres of lease sale parcels are four to five municipal wells that provide water to Ojo Encino, Torreon, Pueblo Pintado, and White Horse Lake. So far, the Bureau has failed to address health concerns, air and water quality concerns, or provide opportunities for meaningful public participation in this whole process. The health of our communities needs to come first."

“Executive Order 12898 required federal agencies to promote environmental justice by determining, and addressing as needed, whether the agency’s programs, policies, and activities have a disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations,” the assessment states.

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However, it does not further evaluate the impacts the development will have on those communities.

Community concerns ignored

Sobel said the BLM did not analyze the impacts because the majority of residents are ethnic minorities. This argument is further made in the lawsuit, which states: “In the EA, BLM cites inapposite census data to support its dismissal of (environmental justice.) For example, BLM cites 2010 census data to imply that the population in the area affected by the lease sale is not a 'minority' population relative to New Mexico’s overall population, and thus presumably does not warrant consideration with respect to environmental justice.”

"That is not only unjust, but it’s racist,” Sobel said.

Daniel Tso, a Navajo Nation council delegate who represents the area, agreed with Sobel and said community concerns were ignored. In addition, he said the field hearings were not conducted at chapter houses prior to the lease sale.

He said the Ojo Encino, Torreon and Counselor chapters oppose any further leasing of land for oil and gas development.

He said chapter officials met with BLM officials leading up to the lease sale and expressed concerns that it would impact the aquifer, as well as wildlife like mule deer and eagles.

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He said the aquifer does not know which tracts of land have been leased and which ones have not, but it provides drinking water for more than 250 families through five wells.

Tso said there have been studies showing that the aquifer extends past Chaco Canyon.

"It's pristine water," he said.

Tso said he feels like the concerns the community expressed were not heard.

"We already drew a circle around those areas and said, 'You stay away from these areas,'" Tso said. "But where did those expressions of concern go?"

Tso said the Counselor Chapter has seen large amounts of oil and gas activity that has transformed the community. There are now roads where there never used to be roads, and the traffic has increased, including large lines of semi-trailers that Tso said kick up dust that further impacts the air quality.

Additionally, community members have been monitoring air quality and emissions from wells in the area. Tso said they have found high levels of endocrine disruptors, which makes him concerned for the health of people living in the community.

If the courts uphold the lease sale, there is no guarantee the leases will ever be developed. Sobel acknowledged that the current oil and gas extraction environment is not conducive to drilling new wells. On top of the ongoing pandemic, the price of oil plummeted to record lows earlier this year, and natural gas prices have been low for years due to oversupply.

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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