New Mexico Official Pulls Plug On New Oil, Gas Drilling On State Land Near Chaco

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Above Photo: Protesters gather in November outside Hotel Santa Fe holding banners and signs in opposition to potential fracking in the Chaco area. New Mexican

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard has put a halt to new oil and gas leasing on some 73,000 acres of state trust land near the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in Northwest New Mexico, saying the move will help protect archaeological and cultural resources of the state’s pueblos and tribes.

“We are focusing on this particular area because it is so significant to all Native populations in New Mexico and has such a cultural and historical value to them,” Garcia Richard said by phone Tuesday.

She signed an executive order for the moratorium Saturday at the Navajo Nation Chapter House in the town of Counselor. That order also creates the Chaco Canyon Land Office Working Group, composed of tribal and environmental activists who are tasked with finding ways to protect the Chaco area from further development or drilling.

The land commissioner’s action is just the latest move in a near-constant political chess game over oil and gas extraction around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a conflict that pits environmentalists and indigenous activists against a key industry in a region with a flagging economy.

In April, all five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, all Democrats, co-sponsored a protection act that would block more than 316,000 acres within a roughly 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon from oil, gas and other mineral extraction.

One of those delegates, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of Albuquerque, lauded Garcia Richard’s action in an email Tuesday, calling it “a great step that reinforces our efforts to protect Chaco on the federal level.”

Garcia Richard’s initiative — which does not affect federal or private lands in the area — came about a month after the Bureau of Land Management decided to defer leasing about 10,000 acres in that region for oil and gas development. That was the third time the Trump administration planned to sell parcels near Chaco Canyon then deferred the leases following protests and public feedback.

That greater Chaco area comprises a complex patchwork of federal, state trust, private and tribal lands.

“It’s a complicated mix of different jurisdictions,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center branch in Taos.

He said Garcia Richard’s action “essentially aligns the state Land Office with what our congressional delegation is intending to do.” Schlenker-Goodrich said any measure taken to protect that land and its history and culture extends to “living communities in that region who are impacted by oil and gas development.”

But proponents of the oil and gas industry say they work hard to adhere to state and federal laws that protect cultural and historic artifacts and sites in the area. They say limiting development in that region will affect the state’s financial status, which largely draws upon the boom-and-bust industry of oil and gas revenue.

A recent New Mexico Tax Research Institute study said oil and gas tax revenue brought in $2.2 billion for the state in 2018.

Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in an email Tuesday that any limit on oil and gas development “will only disrupt the largest and most successful part of New Mexico’s economy and will rob local communities of jobs and economic growth opportunities.”

He said the association is committed to complying with regulations that protect historical artifacts in the Chaco area.