Protection for Chaco Canyon Sought


On May of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals was asked to determine whether the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by granting 300 applications for fracking well permits in the Mancos Shale area of the San Juan Basin of New Mexico. A coalition of environmental advocacy groups consisting of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and Natural Resource Defense Council sued the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) alleging the BLM authorized drilling without fully considering its cumulative impacts on the environment or on historic properties.

Judicial History

The case arrived at the U.S. Court of Appeals after the Appellants' preliminary injunction was denied. The District Court ruled in favor of the BLM, stating the environmental assessments were adequately analyzed, BLM did not abuse its discretion under the NHPA, and the environmental assessments were properly tiered to its previous environmental impact statements. The Appeals Court ruled in favor of the coalition of environmental advocacy organizations on the important grounds it had standing to bring the action, NEPA required BLM to consider cumulative impacts of reasonably foreseeable wells in environmental assessments (EA), and BLM abused its discretion by failing to consider cumulative water impacts. It stated the “water use associated with drilling the 3,960 reasonably foreseeable horizontal Mancos Shale wells exceeded the water use contemplated 859 in the 2003 EIS in a way that made the BLM’S failure to consider the cumulative water impacts “significant enough to defeat the goals of informed decision making and informed public comment.” The Court of Appeals concluded that BLM violated NEPA. It ordered the case be remanded to district court and that BLM conduct a proper NEPA analysis.

Complaint Against BLM

A new complaint was filed on August 1, 2019 against the BLM in hopes of preventing the Greater Chaco region of New Mexico from being drilled for oil and gas. The Complaint also included a temporary restraining order to halt “any ongoing or future ground disturbance, construction, oil and gas drilling, and oil and gas production on the applications for permits to drill.” The complaint was filed by many of the same environmental organizations in the U.S. Court of Appeals' suit. The Complaint filed in August seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to challenge BLM's decisions to approve 255 applications for permits to drill in the Mancos Shale/Gallup formations. The complaint states that BLM’s “piecemeal approval of the challenged drilling permits is problematic” because they are dependent on fracking which “results in a far greater magnitude of impacts to water and air quality resources than traditional drilling practices.” It states BLM has continued to approve Mancos Shale wells since the last amended complaint of September 2016, which lack the same cumulative analysis that was argued in the judgment by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Implications of Court’s Ruling

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals has its limitations. It only applied to oil and gas wells between 2010 and 2016. The complaint filed in August was for improperly approving oil and gas wells since 2016 and asked the Court to halt further development of wells by issuing a restraining order. Additional support for the Chaco Canyon region comes in the form of legislation proposed by the New Mexico. The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act was introduced in April 2019 by members of New Mexico’s Congress to protect the Chaco region from further development. This bill would protect the Chaco ruins and Chaco Culture National Historical Park by preventing any future leasing or development of minerals owned by the U.S. government within a 10-mile radius around Chaco. It notes the importance of the greater Chaco region to tribes in New Mexico that trace their ancestry and culture to Chaco, and who consider it sacred.

Chaco Region Prospective

Concerns for the environment and cultural preservation of the Chaco region have garnered significant support to protect the Chaco region from oil and gas drilling. Representatives for the tribes and environmental advocates have called for a moratorium in the region but have been instead confronted with continued oil and gas leasing in the area. Though supporters for the conservation of the Chaco region won the decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals, they are in likely need of patience because the protection of the greater Chaco region will be a long and arduous fight.

If you have questions about the drilling of oil and gas in the Chaco region, or have concerns how this might affect you contact Whitcomb Selinsky PC at (866) 476-4558




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