ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Environmental groups and two Navajo officials are calling on U.S. land managers to hold public hearings and conduct a more thorough review of several permits to drill in northwestern New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.
The groups outlined their concerns in a letter sent late Wednesday to Tim Spisak, who oversees U.S. Bureau of Land Management operations in New Mexico. They are worried about the effects of increased development on culturally significant sites, namely those beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“Given the massive climate, public health, cultural impact, and pollution costs of oil and gas drilling in the greater Chaco landscape, there is no denying that there is substantial environmental controversy around the agency’s proposal,” the groups wrote.
A federal appeals court in May found that 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 the region.
The ruling came in a long-running dispute over hundreds of permits that have been issued in the San Juan Basin, which spans parts of New Mexico and Colorado.
Environmental groups claimed in their initial complaint filed in 2015 that the Bureau of Land Management violated environmental and preservation laws in approving the permits.
A panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the preservation claims but ruled that land managers needed to do another environmental review for six of the permits.
Environmentalists contend the subsequent review also was deficient and the public was effectively shut out of the decision-making process because only 10 days were set aside for comment.
They’re asking for at least three hearings on the disputed permits and a 60-day comment period.
Without that, they argue approval of the permits “will stand as an affront to the American public interest and our right to due process.”
Under the direction of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the agency is putting off any new lease sales for the next year within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of Chaco park as officials prepare a new resource management plan for the region.
Federal legislation also is pending that would permanently withdraw federal land holdings from oil and gas development in the buffer zone around Chaco.
However, most of the land surrounding the national park belongs to the Navajo Nation or individual Navajo allotment owners. While top Navajo officials have joined the call for cultural preservation, they have stopped short of asking for a drilling ban because development in the region nets substantial revenue.