Conservation groups launch legal challenge to fracking in the Chaco Canyon region

Lawsuit also says feds ignored climate impacts of new oil and gas development

Cultural and historic resources in the Chaco Canyon region are at risk from fracking. Photo via NPS.
Conservation and community groups say new oil and gas drilling in the San Juan Basin threatens cultural resources in the greater Chaco Canyon region. Photo courtesy WildEarth Guardians.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Community and environmental activists are waging an all-out battle to keep oil and gas drilling at bay in the Chaco Canyon region of northwestern New Mexico, an area with cultural and historic values of global importance, under UNESCO’s World Heritage designation.

Fracking rigs have crept to within 20 miles of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, and some outlier sites are at risk, according to WildEarth Guardians. Just a couple of years ago, the Bureau of Land Management proposed leases within 2 miles of Chaco Canyon. Those proposed leases were deferred, but concerns remain that they could be offered again.

That’s why, along with filing a lawsuit to try and stop oil and gas drilling, a coalition of groups is trying to convince the New Mexico State Legislature to support of a moratorium on fracking in Greater Chaco, considered the cultural heart of the American Southwest.

“It’s time to put the brakes on an out of control agency that wants to promote fracking at the expense of our clean air, scarce water, and a safe climate,” said John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. “The Bureau of Land Management has to stop putting the oil and gas industry ahead of our public lands and our future.”

The lawsuit charges that the BLM’s piecemeal approval for fracking in the area violates federal environmental laws and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Over the last two years, the Bureau of Land Management has approved more than 130 new fracking proposals, primarily near Lybrook and within 20 miles of Chaco Canyon. This, despite the agency’s acknowledgment that it has never analyzed how this development will impact public health and the environment, and has no plan in place to protect the regions’ air, water, and communities.

“The Bureau of Land Management is not taking serious consideration of the sacredness of the Greater Chaco region and the impacts on surrounding Diné communities as they continue to approve more drilling and fracking,” said Colleen Cooley with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment. “It’s time to account for what really matters, our health, our environment, and future generations.”

The lawsuit was filed almost 100 years to the day that Chaco Canyon was designated as a national monument. Thirty groups, including Navajo, community, environmental, and for-profit energy companies called on New Mexico Senators Udall and Heinrich and Congressman Luján to support a moratorium on oil and gas fracking until the Bureau of Land Management can assure protection of the region.

“The Bureau of Land Management is recklessly leaping before looking, turning its back on our public lands in favor of the oil and gas industry,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico Energy Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “With all signs that fracking is costing us dearly, it’s time to put the brakes on this disaster.”

The fracking approvals have come amidst industry pressure to exploit oil from the Mancos shale using horizontal drilling. An intensively industrial form of fossil fuel development, horizontal drilling has besieged the region with truck traffic, oil tanks, pipelines, flares, and fracking equipment. Dozens, if not hundreds, more fracking permits are slated to be approved by the Bureau of Land Management.

The lawsuit also targets the agency’s failure to address the global warming impacts of ramped up fracking. A recent study from NASA found the region has the highest amount of methane emissions in the nation due to extensive fossil fuel development. Methane is not only a valuable product that is being wasted, it’s a potent greenhouse gas that creates 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide.

“These are our public lands, not the oil and gas industry’s,” said Kyle Tisdel, Climate and Energy Program Director at the Western Environmental Law Center. “With today’s lawsuit, all we’re asking for is a time-out to ensure that we have the safeguards in place to protect our climate, keep our air clean, and ensure the health of the region. That’s not too much to ask.”

The groups filing today’s lawsuit include Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and Natural Resources Defense Counsel. Attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians represent the groups.


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