Chaco Canyon “Buffer” Would Be “Unnecessary And A Waste”
A New Mexico trade association called a proposal by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to ban leasing and development on multi-use public lands around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park “unnecessary and a waste” of the state’s abundant natural resources.
Jim Winchester, Executive Director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPA-NM), told Western Wire via email that balancing protections for historical sites with economic development was not an either/or proposition, and a “waste” of the state’s abundant natural resources.
“The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) respects the need to protect rich, cultural areas such as Chaco Canyon National Historic Park at the historic, archeological sites,” Winchester wrote. “However, any legislation calling for large setbacks outside the park is unnecessary and a waste of potential natural resources that can be safely developed without impact to the sites.”
The Udall/Heinrich bill would prevent future federal mineral leases or development of federal subsurface minerals within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon, creating a “buffer” between not just ruins and artifact sites but also “landscape” surrounding the cultural sites.
IPA-NM also said that preventing development in New Mexico would be a missed opportunity and a risk for New Mexico’s infrastructure, including revenue for the state’s education system.
“Restricting lease sales equates to less revenue to New Mexico to support schools and public services,” wrote Winchester.
The Chaco Canyon park is located in northwest New Mexico, part of the San Juan Basin’s natural gas fields. The park itself has been a world heritage site since 1987, and the area’s natural resources have been producing resources and revenue critical to the state for decades.
In May, Heinrich (D-N.M.), said the area should be “off the table” from future development.
“I think we owe it to the greater public and certainly the tribal governments to engage to figure out how we can be more thoughtful in what energy development looks like,” Heinrich said.
A month earlier, a federal judge in New Mexico threw out a lawsuit brought by environmental groups that claimed existing oil and natural gas development had encroached on Chaco Canyon, dismissing all of the activists’ claims brought under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).
The lawsuit, filed in 2015 by Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and Natural Resources Defense Council, targeted the Bureau of Land Management and then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for approving and issuing drilling permits in the San Juan Basin of northwest New Mexico.
Judge James Browning ruled that “BLM complied with NEPA’s requirements,” with adequate public input as part of the NEPA permitting process, and that “BLM did not violate the NHPA, because it considered the effects on historical sites within the wells’ areas of potential effects.”
Browning said the government needed to only consider the impact to historic sites inside or immediately near a well, and that an examination of wells further afield did not make sense.
“Such a limitation makes sense, as the archaeological site’s historical value stems from the historical data recoverable from the location and not the historical property’s setting or feeling associated with it,” Browning wrote in his decision. “Because Chaco Park and its satellites are outside those wells’ APEs [Area of Potential Effect], the BLM was not required to consider the indirect effects the wells would have on Chaco Park and its satellites.”
The potential effects include the impact from hydraulic fracturing necessary to access the region’s natural gas deposits.
“BLM did not violate NEPA, because the BLM appropriately analyzed the impacts of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing,” Browning wrote.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke halted a March 2018 oil and gas lease sale that contained parcels located near the park, calling for a postponement awaiting a review of cultural sites to be completed before the lease will move forward or be canceled altogether. Lease sales for twenty-five parcels covering more than 4,400 acres were postponed by the agency.
In 2017, New Mexico saw quarterly lease sale revenues from federal multiple-use lands of nearly $168 million, with roughly half of that sent back to the state directly. The U.S. Energy Information Administration moved the state up its rankings of energy producers by the end of last year to third overall, surpassing California and Oklahoma.
On both a state and local level, New Mexico depends on oil and gas production for funding education.
Oil and gas production tax revenues and royalties jumped two percent last year to $1.74 billion, with more than half of the resource windfall going to the state’s education system. Roughly $711 million of that will go straight to the state’s public schools. On a local level, counties in the state’s oil rich Permian Basin receive a third of their local public school budgets from mineral development.