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Chaco gains reprieve from new drilling

A cherished landscape gained a measure of new protection this month when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order creating a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park that precludes future oil and gas leasing. The decision culminates a yearslong campaign initiated by Puebloan tribes, local Navajo communities, archaeologists and conservation advocates.

Chaco Canyon was the hub of a thriving Puebloan culture 1,000 years ago. New roads, well pads, pipelines and powerlines associated with expanding oil and gas development are encroaching on Chacoan cultural sites and renowned Chacoan roads, risking their erasure from the landscape.

The Department of the Interior’s mineral withdrawal order applies only to the minerals owned by the federal government, approximately 338,000 acres of the 965,000 acres within the 10-mile buffer zone. The remaining minerals are owned by the Navajo Nation, individual Navajo allotees and the state of New Mexico, and the prohibition on new mineral leasing doesn’t apply to those lands.

The federal mineral withdrawal is concentrated north and northeast of Chaco. Starting about 10 years ago, the industry figured out how to extract oil from a new mineral zone using advanced hydraulic fracturing techniques that made oil previously trapped in the Mancos Shale formation available to development.

Consequently, a land rush occurred with new wells advancing ever closer to Chaco, with some wells now just five miles from the park boundary. Those existing mineral leases and wells will not be affected by the ban on future mineral leasing.

Thus, the prohibition against new oil and gas development is a bit of a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Of the 338,000 acres of federal mineral off limits to future leasing, more than 70,000 acres are currently leased, and those include the areas with the greatest potential.

The mineral withdrawal draws a line in the sand for the future though, to ensure that development can creep no closer to Chaco. Because most of the highest development areas five miles or farther from Chaco are already leased, the mineral withdrawal likely won’t have much impact on additional development. The Department of the Interior estimates the prohibition might prevent 47 new wells from being drilled, although another 46 can still proceed on existing leases.

Also important is that the mineral withdrawal applies to future coal leasing and uranium development. In the 1960s, vast coal strip mines were proposed across the Chaco region that would have entirely obliterated much of Chacoan culture. Those mines never came to fruition, and this new decision slams the door shut, as unlikely as coal mining might be.

Uranium mining wrought havoc on the Navajo Nation in the 1950s and 1960s, so much so that the Navajo Nation has its own ban on uranium development within its boundary. The federal withdrawal helps complete that prohibition.

The Interior Department can only issue a 20-year withdrawal order. A permanent withdrawal from development requires legislation by Congress, which New Mexico’s congressional delegation has been proposing for the last several years. That legislation is unlikely to advance in the current Congress, hence the urgency for administrative action.

Conservation advocates are under no illusions the oil and gas leasing ban addresses the many environmental impacts and public health concerns of nearby communities as development of existing leases can still continue full bore. Similarly, the withdrawal hardly spells doom for the industry as it already controls the most valuable oil and gas deposits. But the decision represents a powerful statement that business as usual shouldn’t apply in landscapes treasured by Native Americans and others alike.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.