U.S. Bureau of Land Management to rubberstamp and reapprove Trump-era oil and gas leasing

The Biden administration is pulling out all the stops for more drilling and fracking in the Greater Chaco region.

In spite of promises to protect the Greater Chaco region, the Biden administration continues to rubber-stamp more drilling and more fracking in this beleaguered landscape, perpetuating more environmental injustice and calling into question whether the U.S. Department of the Interior is committed to doing anything but the oil and gas industry’s bidding.

Last fall, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the launch of the “Honoring Chaco Initiative,” a promising move by the Biden administration to follow through on pledges to protect the Greater Chaco region from an oil and gas industry onslaught.

The Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico is culturally significant and important for the spirituality, survival, and cultural health of numerous Tribes, who hold the landscape sacred. Chaco Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historic Park are at the heart of Greater Chaco.

For years now, the land, its people, and its cultural fabric have been under assault by oil and gas companies. Fracking has exploded across the landscape, putting communities at risk, despoiling sacred landmarks, and irreparably degrading Chacoan ruins and other culturally significant sites.

While we had high hopes that the Biden administration and Secretary Haaland would live up to their commitments and uphold their promises, sadly the oil and gas industry still seems to come first in Greater Chaco.  As recent reports have exposed, the Interior Department’s U.S. Bureau of Land Management continues to approve massive drilling and fracking operations, extensive road and pipeline construction, and more oil and gas processing facilities.

But it’s the Bureau of Land Management’s latest plans that comes as a major punch in the gut for Greater Chaco.  

Earlier this month, the agency announced a proposal to reapprove nearly 45,000 acres–that’s 70 square miles–of federal oil and gas leases located only 15 miles east of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and in an area with many Navajo communities and residences.

Under a Bureau of Land Management proposal, the 45,000 acres of oil and gas leases above (in red) would be “re-approved.”

Oil and gas leasing is bad, it locks in the right for oil and gas companies to drill and frack, meaning it essentially guarantees more air and water pollution, more climate emissions, and more threats to public health and safety.  However, the context under which the Bureau of Land Management has proposed to approve these particular leases makes it absolutely reprehensible.

Here, these leases were originally approved under the Trump administration.  At the time, industry cronies in the Interior Department cut every corner to fast track more oil and gas leasing in response to company demands.  In the Greater Chaco region, the Bureau of Land Management rushed to lease, flouting the law, science, community and Tribal concerns, and any notion of environmental justice.

In response, we sued together with Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Sierra Club, and Western Environmental Law Center.  In spite of our lawsuit, the Bureau of Land Management proceeded to approve more than 100 new permits authorizing big oil giant EOG Resources–formerly Enron–to drill and frack the leases.

In response, we moved to block EOG’s drilling plans, filing a motion for a preliminary injunction in federal court last January.  Thankfully, the Biden administration realized the injustice of defending the Trump administration’s lawless leasing and shortly after, we reached a settlement agreement with the Bureau of Land Management.  As part of the settlement, the agency agreed to reconsider its leasing and to pause drilling and fracking on the illegal leases in the meantime.

Unfortunately, it appears the Bureau of Land Management actually had no objective plan for reconsideration.

In its announcement this month, the agency released four environmental assessments.  All four state that the Bureau of Land Management’s “proposed action” is to reapprove all past leasing.  Worse, all four assessments rely on the same lawless logic of the Trump administration that oil and gas leasing poses no significant impacts to the environment.

And if that wasn’t enough, all four assessments plainly state that in reapproving the leases, more oil and gas extraction in the region will disproportionately impact Navajo residents and communities with air and water pollution and infrastructure degradation.  In other words, a complete environmental injustice.

Although we hope the Bureau of Land Management changes course, in the meantime, we’re gearing up for another fight.  We certainly want to trust the Biden administration and Secretary Haaland to do the right thing for the Greater Chaco region, but if the Honoring Chaco Initiative is all talk, then we’ll have no choice but to go court to defend this irreplaceable landscape.

Stay tuned for more! In the meantime, speak out and keep the pressure on the Biden administration.

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About the Author

Jeremy Nichols | Former Climate and Energy Program Director, WildEarth Guardians

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