ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal appeals court says U.S. land managers should have done more to consider the cumulative effects on water resources before approving a handful of oil and gas drilling permits in northwestern New Mexico.
Tuesday’s ruling comes in a long-running dispute over hundreds of permits that have been issued in the San Juan Basin. Environmental groups and some Native Americans have voiced concerns about the effects of increased development on the region’s culturally significant sites.
The groups claimed in their initial complaint filed in 2015 that the Bureau of Land Management violated environmental and preservation laws in approving the permits.
“We always knew BLM wasn’t doing their job – we watch their violations and non-compliance every day,” said Kendra Pinto of Counselor Chapter House, a member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “To finally be vindicated by a higher court is the necessary step forward we need. Now we must continue to hold BLM accountable.”
A panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the preservation claims but did rule that land managers needed to do another environmental review for six of the permits.
New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Director of Communications Robert McEntyre said his organization is still reviewing the ruling.
“From our understanding, it only involves a small fraction of permits that were challenged,” McEntyre said. “It looks like it impacts only about six of the 300 permits that were challenged,”
The suit targeted BLM’s alleged failure to account for the cumulative, region-wide impacts of fracking, including impacts to water supplies, community health, air quality, climate, and cultural integrity of the landscape, according to the Western Environmental Law Center. In 2014, the Bureau estimated nearly 4,000 fracking wells would be developed in the region, where more than 91 percent of the available land is leased for oil and gas drilling.
“Today’s ruling is a win in our efforts to protect our treasured New Mexico heritage from the damage done by oil and gas drilling,” U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M, said in an emailed statement. “We’ll continue pushing forward on the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, our legislation to permanently protect our sacred landscapes from being drilled out of existence.”
McEntyre said the suit “was not about BLM adhering to the rules.”
He said the groups involved in the suit “oppose oil and gas development anywhere in New Mexico.”
Haaland and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján hosted a congressional field hearing last month about the impact of oil and gas drilling on public lands that included a tour of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. They, U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, and U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, all Democrats, are sponsoring the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act that would ban oil and gas drilling on non-tribal federal land within a 10-mile radius of the park.
New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, meanwhile, signed an executive order placing a moratorium on new oil and gas development on state trust land in the proposed buffer zone around Chaco Canyon.