Energy companies had nominated 38 parcels for leases
Opponents of drilling near Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico have received a reprieve from proposals to drill on U.S. Bureau of Land Management parcels bordering the park, which is home to ancestral Puebloan ruins.
The BLM this week released an environmental assessment that proposes to lease four of 38 parcels that were nominated by gas and oil companies.
None of the parcels recommended by the BLM’s preferred alternative to go forward is among the nominated parcels closest to the park. One nominated parcel was less than a quarter-mile from the park boundary.
The closest of the four parcels in the preferred alternative is about 10 miles from the park, and all four parcels are in an area that already is home to gas and oil activity.
Chaco Canyon is about a 2½-hour drive south of Durango.
A coalition of environmental groups wants the parcels nearest to Chaco Canyon permanently protected. Some of the parcels have been nominated repeatedly for leasing to gas and oil companies and deferred by the BLM.
“They keep coming back with defer, defer, defer,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the Durango-based environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We think the deferments should be permanent.”
Industry officials are staunchly opposed to extending protections outside the existing park boundary.
“The industry doesn’t feel it’s warranted,” said Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “It’s really up to Congress to designate national parks. It’s got a boundary. It’s multiple use on one side, and it’s off limits on the other.”
Henke called the BLM’s preferred alternative “pretty conservative.”
Chaco Canyon was inhabited a millennium ago by ancestral Puebloans. Many present-day Southwest tribes, including the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe, trace heritage to ancient residents of Chaco. Tribes have been among the chorus of opposition to drilling near Chaco.
Dave Evans, district manager of the BLM’s Farmington district office, said the preferred alternative balances industry interests with the cultural resources in the Chaco area.
“There was a lot of angst from the environmental community, from the (nongovernmental organizations),” Evans said. “I hope now that they see that only four parcels have been recommended, and they’re so far from the park, maybe some of that trepidation goes away. We did strike a balance between responsible energy development and the other uses in that area.”
The assessment defers some of the parcels until the BLM completes an environmental impact statement on drilling in the Mancos Shale, a process expected to take two to three years.
Other parcels were deferred until a wilderness inventory is completed.
Energy firms led by Encana Corp. of Canada are exploring the Mancos Shale, a geologic layer present in the south San Juan Basin, for oil. Oil remains far more valuable than natural gas, the dominant commodity produced in the basin.
Larry Turk, acting superintendent of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, said it would be premature to comment because he had not fully reviewed the environmental assessment. The National Park Service will prepare a formal response to the assessment, he said.
Environmental groups are concerned that another option in the environmental assessment adds three parcels near the park. BLM New Mexico State Director Jesse Juen will make the final decision on which parcels will be part of the Jan. 22 lease sale in Santa Fe.
“We’re really adamant – this is an area that should not be leased,” said Eisenfeld. “This is bordering on crazy.”