Lease sale opponents hail decision, but say more needs to be done

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FARMINGTON — The head of the U.S Department of the Interior threw a curve ball into the debate and planned protests over issuing drilling leases in the Chaco Canyon area Thursday when he unexpectedly halted a planned auction of parcels near a site considered sacred by many Native Americans.

Lease sale opponents welcomed the news, but said this positive step is just the first needed to address the health and cultural impacts of oil and gas development.

The move means BLM must now perform an extensive cultural review process for the lands near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“After hearing from Tribes, Senators (Tom) Udall and (Martin) Heinrich, historic preservation experts, and other stakeholders, I've decided to defer the sale that was scheduled for later this month,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release today. “I've always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it's not. This area certainly deserves more study.”

MORE: Environmental groups appeal BLM leasing in Greater Chaco area

The proposed lease sale includes 25 parcels that cover 4,434 acres within Rio Arriba, Sandoval and San Juan counties, the release said.

The affected parcels include 2,033 acres of private land, 1,031 acres of BLM-managed public land and 1,370 acres of tribal trust land.

“My job is to make sure that the local voices are heard, and the state and national interests are reflected,” Zinke said. “In this case, there is some concern about the proximity to Chaco of some of the leases and the uncertainty about cultural impacts.”

BLM’s state office vowed to work with all stakeholders during the review process, which ultimately could still result in some lease sales in that vicinity. Leases last for 10 years, or as long as a well produces, and the revenues are shared between the federal government and the states.

“We understand the cultural importance of this area, and the need to gather additional information about this landscape before holding a lease sale,” BLM New Mexico Acting State Director Aden Seidlitz said in today's release. “We will continue to work with consulting parties, including tribal and state governments, state and federal agencies and others, as we consider and analyze impacts of oil and gas leasing in the area.” 

The agency will “complete an extensive cultural report, which will be used to support the agency’s findings of how oil and gas leasing will affect the proposed leasing area,” the release stated. “Once the analysis is complete, the BLM will pursue offering parcels for lease that have been deemed appropriate for leasing.”

MORE: Farmington BLM advisory council hears public criticism among expedited process frustrations

Heinrich was among the elected officials who had voiced concerns over the lease

"I commend Secretary Zinke for agreeing with the people of New Mexico and halting the proposed lease sale of the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” Heinrich told The Daily Times via email today. “This area holds much meaning to the Navajo Nation, whose lands surround the park, and New Mexico Pueblos who consider the sites sacred.”

Heinrich said collaboration between BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs “is critical to protecting important cultural and religious sites while planning for future energy development, as well as incorporating tribal priorities into the planning process." 

Udall said Zinke has previously assured him that he’s committed to the BLM and BIA's cooperative approach to drafting a Northwestern New Mexico regional management plan. 

“This will provide an opportunity for the joint BLM-BIA regional planning process to incorporate the input of local communities, Pueblos and Tribes, along with industry and other stakeholders,” Udall said Friday. “New Mexicans deserve a say in any proposed development on public lands in our state, especially when it is near sacred or culturally sensitive land. "

Zinke first announced the auction’s suspension in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal’s Washington bureau that ran Thursday. The announcement caught the auction’s opposition by surprise.

The drilling permit sales were the subject of a planned series of protests next week by auction opponents, the first of which had been planned Monday at BLM’s Farmington office. That protest will not go forward, according to an announcement today.

The protest organizers, WildEarth Guardians and the Pueblo Action Alliance, said in a release today that “events are still moving forward in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to reassert the need for proper planning and consultation in the ongoing resource management planning process.”

MORE: Youth group runs 80 miles to call attention for protecting greater Chaco area

Those include delivering more than 250,000 public comments to the BLM’s Santa Fe office next

While praising DOI for its restraint in this case, WildEarth Guardians senior climate & energy campaigner Rebecca Sobel said much more needs to happen.

“The Interior Department has yet to follow through in adopting a plan to protect this sacred landscape, its people, our clean air and water, and our climate,” Sobel said in a prepared statement, “but canceling this lease sale is the first step toward fulfilling that promise. “

Other opponents also pooled their comments in a joint press release today.

“Certainly, the lease sale cancellation is somewhat of a surprise but is welcomed news,” said Daniel Tso, former Navajo Nation Torreon Council delegate and member of the Counselor Citizens HIA- Hózhóógó na'adá Committee. “The best news, however would be a moratorium on all leasing as the Resource Management Plan components are completed. The human, familial and community, as well as the health impacts remain as continuing unresolved issues."

Tso said the announcement by Zinke did not address “the environmental justice aspects of the tsunami of development. We, the indigenous peoples will still be on the homelands when all the extraction explorers have left. We will be here.” 

Navajo Nation Twin Pines resident Kendra Pinto said the cancellation “is just a start. We will continue to push our message to protect the people currently living in the Chaco area. Continuing to extract adds to the mounting problems of changes in our environment. Thank you to those who stood alongside us as we voiced our concerns."

The New Mexico Gas and Oil Association supports the Trump Administration’s decision to delay the auction, but expressed overall disappointment with BLM’s ability to meet lease sale deadlines.

“NMOGA supports the administration’s steps to make this leasing process more efficient, more regular, more compliant to the law,” said NMOGA spokesman Robert McEntyre. He said NMOGA “fully understands and respects the decision.”

“We’re disappointed that BLM is not internally able to meet its deadline for sales,” McEntyre added. He said deferred lease sales equal deferred revenues to the state to fund schools and other vital services.

READ MORE:

Guidelines developed for drilling near Chaco Canyon

National organization calls for protecting Chaco area

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