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Drilling plan comment period closes Sept. 25, but has 'meaningful consultation' occurred?

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A coalition of environmental advocates say the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to provide meaningful consultation with tribal members while the two agencies drafted a resource management plan amendment for the Farmington Field Office of the BLM.

This amendment is often talked about in terms of drilling in the Greater Chaco landscape. The draft amendment would allow new drilling closer to Chaco Culture National Historical Park than is currently practiced.

The comment period ends on Sept. 25, but the Greater Chaco Coalition is asking for another extension that would delay ending the comment period until after face-to-face meetings with tribal members have occurred. That would mean extending the comment period until a time when mass gatherings can safely occur.

The Greater Chaco Coalition is not alone in its calls to extend the comment period. Members of the New Mexico Congressional Delegation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors have sent letters asking for an extension. And Daniel Tso, the chairman of the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, has also sent a letter requesting the comment period be extended until face-to-face meetings can occur.

The original deadline for the comment period was in May during the peak of the pandemic on the Navajo Nation. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt extended the comment period through Sept. 25 to provide more opportunities for engagement.

But restrictions created by the pandemic have continued and all the meetings that have taken place have been in a virtual setting.

During a virtual meeting on Aug. 28, BLM Farmington Field Office spokesperson Jillian Aragon said the virtual meetings were not meant to be considered tribal consultation and there is a different process for that.

"The agencies have met many times with tribes...and we will continue to as they would like to engage with us," she said.

A pottery sherd is pictured, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at  Pierre's Ruins, 20-miles north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

She highlighted that there have been several rounds of scoping hearings dating back to 2014. There were five virtual meetings in May and more virtual meetings in August.

BLM Farmington Field Office Manager Al Elser also highlighted the past meetings, including tribal consultation and informal outreach, that has occurred over the past six years as the amendment was drafted.

"I don't want anyone to have the impression that because the last six months we've been under a pandemic that we've had zero outreach or zero input from our various public, be it the tribes and pueblos or the public at large," he said during the Aug. 28 meeting.

Concerns about consequences

Mario Atencio, who is a member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, said meaningful consultation or meaningful efforts to gain input from the people directly impacted by the drilling near Chaco Canyon requires face to face meetings with maps and documents as well as back-and-forth communication.

The rural communities near Chaco Canyon have limited broadband access and sometimes even limited cell reception. Because of the lack of cell reception, Chaco Culture National Historical Park has a pay phone located outside the visitors’ center.

Andreanne Catt, left, and Lauren Howland prepare to join a group of runners protesting oil and gas drilling,  Monday, June 26, 2017 in Farmington.

On top of that, the tribal members without broadband access do not have easy access to the more than 1,000 pages of documents in the draft amendment and its appendices. The various locations where physical copies of the documents could be found were closed for at least part of the time since March, just weeks after the documents were released for public review.

“People are going to see just an explosion of more and more impacts to air pollution and water,” Atencio said about the consequences of not having what she defines as meaningful consultation.

The plan specifically looks at extraction of oil and natural gas in the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico within the Farmington Field Office boundaries.

The majority of extraction is currently occurring in the southern part of the basin near Chaco Canyon. The people who live in the area have mixed feelings about the development. Some rely on the royalty payments from extraction on their allotments. Some of these allottees welcome additional development, which could provide them with needed money to make ends meet. Other people in the communities fear the health and public safety impacts of the emissions as well as the impacts on the sacred sites. This includes emissions, produced water spills and increased traffic.

If there is no meaningful consultation, Atencio warns that “future generations will look back and say ‘how did you allow all these chemicals to be released into our community. You had the chance to say something.’”

Greater Chaco has cultural significance 

The Greater Chaco landscape encompasses a broad swath of land, including virtually all of the Farmington Field Office. It extends up into Colorado and Utah, where the North Chacoan Road connected the various sites in Chaco Canyon with great houses in areas like Mesa Verde, Chimney Rock and Bears Ears.

This is a sacred landscape, Atencio said. It is the place where the Navajo epics occur. He compared it to Mount Sinai, the Biblical location where religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe God gave the prophet Moses the Ten Commandments.

Because of its importance to the Navajo and Puebloan people, Congress allocated funding for a cultural study. This has not yet been completed.

Stars illuminate the sky, Friday, June 24, 2016 at the Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Plan is on the Trump administration's fast track

WildEarth Guardians Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner Rebecca Sobel expressed concern about the process bypassing the cultural study.

On top of that, activists discovered the resource management plan amendment on a list of energy projects being expedited by the U.S. Department of the Interior under the direction of President Donald Trump's administration. The Center for Biological Diversity discovered the list through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The FOIA request led to the Center for Biological Diversity obtaining a letter dated July 15. The letter is addressed Larry Kudlow, director of the United States National Economic Council, on behalf of the Department of the Interior. 

"I am pleased to report that the Department has developed multiple mechanisms for reducing the time required for environmental reviews on all projects where we are either the lead or a cooperating agency, including activities that will promote economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic," the letter states in the first paragraph.

The letter includes a list of projects that the author Katherine Sinclair McGregor describes as "within the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to perform or advance." McGregor serves as the deputy secretary of the interior.

Resource management plan is nearly 20 years old

Sobel argues that a new resource management plan is needed. The current process is looking at an amendment to the 2003 plan, but she said there has never been real study examining the cumulative impacts of multi-stage fracturing and horizontal drilling that includes a look at environmental and racial justice.

A 10-mile buffer zone was established while the amendment was being completed and there have been attempts to make this buffer zone law. But Sobel said she doesn’t think a 10-mile buffer zone is enough.

“I don’t think it’s about drawing lines on a map,” she said.

She said a cultural study should be completed and incorporated into a new resource management plan.

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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