Groups sue BLM, Interior Department over drilling in northwest New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A coalition of environmental groups on Wednesday challenged federal land managers over the approval of dozens of oil and gas drilling permits in northwestern New Mexico.

The groups filed their lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Interior Department in federal court as a small group of activists rallied outside the State Capitol. The activists said more development and hydraulic fracturing could harm the environment and sites such as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“The Bureau of Land Management is not taking serious consideration of the sacredness of the greater Chaco region and the impacts on surrounding Dine communities as they continue to approve more drilling and fracking,” said Colleen Cooley with Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment. Dine (dih-NEH’) is the Navajo word for “the people.”

The BLM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agency is in the process of updating its management plan for the San Juan Basin in the face of an expected shale oil boom, and the groups have been pushing the agency to stop approving new drilling permits until the plan is in place.

The agency in January did postpone an oil and gas lease sale for more than 4 square miles in northwestern New Mexico, saying more time was needed to review public comments that raised concerns about environmental justice and other issues.

Environmentalists, the Hopi Tribe in Arizona and others have long criticized the idea of drilling near Chaco Canyon, a World Heritage site that includes a series of monumental stone structures that date back centuries. The area was considered a ceremonial and economic center for the ancestors of many Native American tribes in the region.

Efforts to lease parcels near the park first drew fire in 2013. The BLM proposed limiting the number of parcels to be leased after consulting with tribes. Those under consideration were several miles from the park and adjacent to existing oil and gas operations.

Environmentalists and archaeologists unsuccessfully petitioned the agency to set aside more than 1 million acres around Chaco Canyon as an area of critical environmental concern.

The agency followed up in January 2014, saying no parcels near the park would be put up for bid.

The lawsuit argues that the San Juan Basin, which stretches into southern Colorado, encompasses dozens prehistoric Native American great houses connected by hundreds of miles of ancient ceremonial roads. While Chaco park represents the heart of the area, the lawsuit states numerous archaeological sites lie well outside park boundaries.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday specifically challenges BLM’s approval of at least 130 drilling applications, citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.