House spending bill would ban Chaco-area drilling; advocates say it’s not enough

By: - September 15, 2021 7:16 am

Chaco Canyon (Photo by the National Park Service)

A provision in the House of Representatives’ plan to spend $3.5 trillion would ban new oil and gas drilling around the Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, though an alliance fighting to protect the 1,000-year-old site says it doesn’t go far enough.

Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate have worked out details on the package that, if passed through slim majorities in both chambers, would make major investments in immigration and climate change programs.

It also contains smaller provisions, like to impose a ban on oil and gas development in specific sacred or culturally important swaths of public lands. 

An amendment to the spending plan would prohibit drilling within the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area in northwestern New Mexico, which is the area around the monument. The provision would stop any new leases from being sold and nix any inactive leases, according to the bill. 

However, Julia Bernal, a spokesperson for the Pueblo Action Alliance, said the heritage area is basically just a 10-mile buffer around the canyon, so the amendment doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect the landscape and the people who live within it. 

“The amendments in the reconciliation bill only really talk about the [ban] within a 10-mile buffer, which doesn’t really encompass … the majority of the region,” she said. “There are pieces of our history that are essentially outside of that 10-mile buffer.”

The heritage area is protected from drilling for at least another four months, thanks to a January executive order from President Joe Biden that banned new oil and natural gas leases on public lands for a year. The pause on new leases is being conducted to enable a “comprehensive review and reconsideration of federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices.”

The review, Bernal said, is crucial to understanding the effects of oil and gas drilling in the area on people and the environment. 

“This program is still under review to understand what its cumulative impact has been,” she said. “There hasn’t been adequate studies in terms of what it’s doing to groundwater and surface water.”

Chaco Canyon is the home to several multi-story structures built by the Chacoan people beginning in the ninth century, along with hundreds of miles of roads and villages alongside them. It’s also known as a premier stargazing site.

In late 2019, then-U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan sponsored a bill that would have prohibited development in the area around the canyon. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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