A sign welcomes passersby to an “Energy Sacrifice Zone” outside of Counselor, New Mexico, on Oct. 26, 2021. The Greater Chaco region has become a flashpoint between environmental activists and the oil and gas industry, which is expanding into the oil-rich land. (Photo by Jimmy Cloutier / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)
A plan to bar new oil and gas leases within Chaco Canyon National Historic Park for 20 years will only slightly reduce the activity of extractive mineral industries, according to an environmental assessment released last week by the U.S. Interior Department.
The federal government announced a halt to new leases on about 338,690 acres within a 10 mile-radius in Chaco Canyon in January 2022.
The news was met with celebration by tribal entities and environmental groups, but advocates were concerned that the proposal wouldn’t apply to existing leases or to areas outside the buffer zone, so drilling would continue around the sacred site.
“There’s still going to be development going on in that 10-mile buffer, and there’s nothing to prohibit that,” said Carol Davis, director of Diné CARE, told the news publication Grist a month after the announcement. “And that’s going to expose people to the adverse health impacts that are a result of oil and gas fracking.”
The Interior Department projects that within the Chaco Canyon buffer zone, where new leases are not permitted, natural gas producers will see a reduction of less than 1% in their output. Oil and gas companies could see about 2.5% less production than in years before the ban.
The Chaco region is a large swath of northwest New Mexico, and it’s considered a checkerboard area because of the way small parts of the Navajo Nation dot the landscape.
On a state level, New Mexico already has a 12-mile buffer zone banning new oil and gas leases on state land around Chaco that went into effect in 2019.
That executive order was signed by state Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.
“The moratorium on oil and gas drilling does not mean there’s a moratorium on activity. I mean, we haven’t decided what activity would occur obviously, right in this area,” she said. “We are still contemplating what uses that land would be for.”
Garcia Richard won re-election last week with 55% of voters saying yes to another four-year term for the commissioner. She supports the federal government’s approach to Chaco Canyon, she said, and if it weren’t for limits imposed by state law, she’d make the state’s ban in the area extend for longer. It’s set to expire in Dec. 2023, and she’s already preparing to seek a renewal.
She said the State Land Office has not seen any impact from the ban on oil and gas revenue to the state. In fact, the industry is making record profits. For fiscal year 2022, New Mexico earned more than $2.4 billion for business on state lands, the majority of which comes from oil and gas. That nearly doubled the agency’s record for revenue in a single year, Garcia Richard said.
“This is not necessarily that impactful to production. But it’s still, you know, it’s a worthy thing to do because this area is so sacred and significant to so many in our state,” she said.
Windfalls of millions in revenue are attractive for any state, but the boom-and-bust nature of the industry is a lingering concern for people like Rebecca Sobel.
Sobel, organizing Director for WildEarth Guardians, said she approves of the moves Garcia Richard has made to protect Chaco Canyon and would like to see the moratorium expanded. She does hold some concerns that the federal government isn’t doing enough to hold the industry accountable.
“I think it’s all too common of a trope in New Mexico, to be concerned for the self-interest of the oil and gas industry because our state budget is held hostage by industry profits,” Sobel said. “The entire Greater Caco landscape deserves protection. The Chaco Canyon culture doesn’t stop at the 10-mile buffer. The Chaco landscape is a living culture where communities still reside.”
The State Land Office is taking part in the Honoring Chaco Initiative where the Interior Department is hosting discussions between tribal leaders, business, state, federal and other parties invested in the future of stewardship in the area.
This part of the process is welcome by both Sobel and Garcia Richard because it brings tribal interests to the table while negotiating action plans.
“It’s encouraging to see Secretary Haaland try to run the Interior differently, especially with this initiative, getting tribes to come to the table to have their own voice and deciding what’s in their own self-interest,” Sobel said. “It’s a really important step that it’s happening, but it’s still yet to be seen what the outcomes of this process are going to be because the greater Chaco landscape has a legacy of issues dealing with the results of being sacrificed for decades.”
Garcia Richard said the expertise was obvious.
“There’s not going to be anybody but a tribal member who will know the significance of these issues we’re working on,” Garcia Richard said.
From the moment she started drafting the drilling lease moratorium for New Mexico, Garcia Richard made sure to include tribal interests in her plans, she said, eventually collaborating with and gathering support from leaders within Indigenous communities to work with environmental groups and others in presenting the final order.
She’s excited to see the federal government follow up with a similar approach.
“This land is ancestral to tribes in New Mexico, and it’s sacred and significant to tribes in New Mexico,” Garcia Richard said. “The one thing I probably would caution anyone who wants to undergo tribal constitution is not to make it just kind of a de facto, checkbox process. Consultation should be done early, often, and it should be meaningful.”
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