4 Investigates: The battle over oil & gas development near Chaco Canyon
June 25, 2019 07:52 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- The battle is heating up over New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Region. It’s an area considered the birthplace of the Pueblo people and while the land near the national park is rich in history, it’s also rich in resources like oil and gas.
The fight to prevent new drilling in the area is reaching a tipping point.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park offers a window to a world more than a thousand years old. It was once home to the ancient Chacoan people and it’s impressive archeological sites pepper the desert floor.
Chaco Park has long been federally protected but the land surrounding the park remains the center of a hotly contested debate. For decades, a battle has been building over oil and gas development throughout the Greater Chaco Region.
“It’s my ancestral homeland. It’s the ancestral homeland of the Pueblo people,” said New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who is one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.
In May, Haaland led the first hearing on Capitol Hill to push legislation that would create permanent protection for the land surrounding Chaco Park from future drilling and fracking.
The proposed law would prevent the federal government from granting any new oil and gas leases with a 10-mile buffer zone of the park. The measure has already gained broad support from tribal leaders.
“This place is sacred and deserves permanent protections,” said Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation during a Congressional subcommittee hearing.
All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman E. Paul Torres urged Congress to support the bill.
The bill would not affect private land or any existing oil and gas development.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are currently 73 active oil and gas leases within 10 miles of Chaco Park. Within the past three years, the BLM reports the industry has shown interest in expanding operations at least 13 times.
“There is some interest in the region around Chaco Canyon — not necessarily right next to the park, not necessarily in the park but several miles away,” said Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association.
“We believe we can safely produce oil and natural gas within that buffer zone,” said McEntyre.
In April, a delegation of lawmakers visited an oil and gas production site near Chaco Canyon. The environmental advocacy organization Earthworks provided an optical gas imaging camera — which the group claims, showed harmful gases polluting the air and rising into the atmosphere above the Four Corners area.
In an email, a spokesperson for Earthworks conceded they “do not know specifically what is in the plume” but insist it could be one of 20 pollutants detected by the camera.
Oil and gas industry representatives urge caution over those types of videos.
“We’re really interested in minimizing the emissions footprint of our operations but I think videos like this are designed to instill fear. They’re designed to mislead. They’re not designed to have a substantive conversation that’s based and grounded in facts,” McEntyre said.
However, Rep. Haaland and Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Lujan are convinced the video provides proof of dangerous activity.
“You can look through [the cameras] and see methane spewing out of these pipes at various sites,” Rep. Haaland said.
Assistant Speaker Lujan echoed those concerns.
“It hits you,” he said. “When you’re smelling it and you can see it, I can’t describe how it makes you feel. It makes you angry, it makes you mad.”
The Trump Administration recently offered some relief to those trying to preserve the land. Last month, the Interior Secretary placed a temporary one-year moratorium on any new oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Park.
However, some say the temporary measure doesn’t go far enough and Rep. Lujan fears the Trump administration could easily change course.
“President Donald Trump overturned executive orders that were put in place around methane flaring, for example, and protecting areas around Chaco —that’s why this legislation matters so much,” Lujan said.
The New Mexico Oil & Gas Association reports methane emissions in the San Juan Basin have declined by 55% since 2011. On Monday, the association released a report outlining how the industry and the state of New Mexico can work together to reduce emissions even further. The road map includes support for annual leak detection and repairs.
Updated: June 25, 2019 07:52 AM
Created: June 24, 2019 09:29 PM
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