After all, both states produce huge amounts of oil and gas that is shipped to other states for processing, refining, and burning, inevitably pumping more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Both states could drastically reduce greenhouse gases within their political boundaries, but still fuel the climate crisis through their fossil fuel exports.
Unfortunately, while Governors Michelle Lujan Grisham and Jared Polis acknowledge the need for bold climate action in their respective states, their plans do nothing to actually transition New Mexico and Colorado away from oil and gas extraction.
When it comes to confronting the oil and gas industry’s climate footprint, all both Governors seem to want to do is target methane emissions from oil and gas wells and pipelines.
Yet as WildEarth Guardians and GreenLatinos pointed out in an op-ed this week, regulating methane is no climate solution. In fact, it has the potential to incentivize even more fracking, setting back climate progress and slowing the pace of global greenhouse gas reductions in Colorado and New Mexico.
Even worse, as we wrote together with Ean Thomas Tafoya of GreenLatinos, methane regulation threatens to perpetuate environmental injustices, putting people of color, low income neighborhoods, and Tribal communities at risk.
Regulating the oil and gas industry’s methane does nothing to right…environmental injustices.
Ean Thomas Tafoya, GreenLatinos
It’s true that methane is a potent greenhouse gas and that keeping these emissions in check makes sense. However, without complementary action to slow and ultimately stop oil and gas extraction altogether, methane regulation is nothing short of greenwashing.
Despite this, when it comes to confronting the climate impacts of the oil and gas industry, both Governors’ plans for bold climate action only call for addressing methane emissions.
In Colorado, the Polis administration in September released its draft “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap,” which only calls for near-term action to adopt more limits on the oil and gas industry’s methane. At the same time, the draft Roadmap shows oil and gas production is expected to increase till about 2030.
And in New Mexico’s latest climate progress report released this month, the Lujan Grisham administration also only identifies methane regulation as its sole strategy for confronting the oil and gas industry’s climate pollution. Like Colorado, the state projects ongoing increases in oil production beyond 2023.
We’ve said on many an occasion, we can’t frack our way to a safe climate.
In spite of this, Governors Lujan Grisham and Polis seem poised to oversee ongoing unprecedented levels of oil and gas extraction in Colorado and New Mexico, which will only keep flooding our atmosphere with pollution and cost our society dearly as the climate crisis rages.
If the Governors are truly serious about meeting bold climate goals, that has to change.
— WildEarth Guardians' Climate and Energy Program (@ClimateWest) October 22, 2020
As we stated in our op-ed with GreenLatinos this week, “It’s time for Gov. Polis and Gov. Lujan Grisham to stop talking about climate leadership and start actually taking action to keep oil and gas in the ground. It’s time for the governors to lead a just and complete transition from fossil fuels in Colorado and New Mexico.”
We hope that in the coming months and years the Governors of Colorado and New Mexico will heed the science and reality and send a message to the world that the oil and gas industry’s days are numbered.
At a virtual hearing before the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board starting today, we’re challenging the state’s approval of permits that are fueling air quality violations.
In spite of rising pollution in southeast New Mexico, regulators continue to rubberstamp more permits for the oil and gas industry to pollute. This region encompasses the western Permian Basin, which is the world’s largest oil producing region and a massive source of climate pollution.
As more permits have been approved, air quality has worsened, increasingly threatening people and communities in the region. Air quality in southeast New Mexico now violates federal health limits for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.
The thing is, the New Mexico Environment Department is legally prohibited from approving air pollution permits that contribute to violations of federal health standards.
In light of this, we’ve appealed a number of permits and provided written expert testimony highlighting how the New Mexico Environment Department’s ongoing permitting of more fracking pollution not only threatens clean air, but completely defies the law.
Today, we’re getting our day in court, although virtually.
The hearing kicks off with WildEarth Guardians Staff Attorney, Daniel Timmons, offering an opening statement, followed by testimony and cross examination from all the parties.
We simply ask that the Board uphold the law and the Department’s permitting regulations and put a stop to this untenable situation.
– Daniel Timmons, WildEarth Guardians Staff Attorney
The Environmental Improvement Board is also scheduled to take public comment starting at 4 PM on September 23 and at 9 AM on September 24. If you can, tune in and offer your comments via WebEx, click here to join >>
We’ve prepared talking points to help guide your comments, please take the time to speak out if you can!
Our hope is that the Environmental Improvement Board, which consists of seven citizen members, will do the right thing, hold the Environment Department accountable, and reject illegally approved permits.
The need for the Environmental Improvement Board to uphold the law is more critical than ever for southeast New Mexico. In Eddy County, where the town of Carlsbad is located and where Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located, ozone levels continue to rise above health standards.
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, Eddy County has experienced eight days of unhealthy ozone so far in 2020. As the chart below shows, 2020 is set to be yet another smoggy year for the region.
Without a doubt, this air pollution has been fueled by a boom in fracking in southeast New Mexico.
Recognizing this, the New Mexico Environment Department has proposed new regulations that would clamp down on ozone forming pollution from the oil and gas industry. While potentially offering relief, unfortunately the prospect of future new regulations doesn’t let the Department off the hook for protecting clean air in the present.
It’s critical that the oil and gas industry stop putting the costs of its pollution on the shoulders of people and communities. We won’t back down until we’ve achieved full accountability.
While Colorado is set to adopt new rules to crack down further on the oil and gas industry’s dangerous air pollution, the state is still wildly off track to fully protect communities and the climate in the face of unchecked fracking.
This has to change. And during the week of September 14th, we’ll have a chance to deliver a call to action to Governor Jared Polis.
On September 17, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will hold a hearing to decide whether to adopt new rules to further crack down on toxic gases during fracking. The proposed rules would require more stringent emission controls on engines used at oil and gas well sites, set limits on pollution at waste disposal sites, and, for the first time ever, require air quality monitoring before and after drilling.
The rules are a positive step forward and will build upon new regulations adopted last December to rein in fracking pollution. In a formal filing last July, WildEarth Guardians expressed support for the rules, although called on the Air Commission to strengthen them in key areas.
Still, Colorado remains way off track to meet legally required climate targets. Worse, as fracking continues to boom in the state, there’s simply no way Colorado can effectively make progress in confronting the climate crisis.
This crisis isn’t just putting the climate at risk, it’s disproportionately threatening the health and safety of low income neighborhoods and communities of color.
At the September 17th Air Quality Control Commission meeting, WildEarth Guardians will be presenting testimony urging the citizen board to go further and faster in confronting the oil and gas industry’s harmful air pollution. The bottomline is, the Commission needs to adopt rules that help wind down and ultimately end fracking in Colorado.
You can help deliver this message loud and clear at a virtual public comment hearing next Thursday September 17 starting at 4:30 PM. The Air Commission will be giving the public a chance to comment over Zoom, click here to sign up ASAP >>
To attend and observe the virtual public comment hearing also make sure to register via Zoom, click here >>
We’re urging people to deliver a short and simple message to the Air Quality Control Commission and Governor Jared Polis. If you can attend and speak out, make sure to say the following:
- The Commission needs to take bold action to adopt rules that rein in the oil and gas industry’s toxic air pollution;
- For people’s health and the climate, the Commission needs to adopt rules that help Colorado wind down and ultimately end fracking in the state;
- The Commission needs to more quickly and boldly to confront the oil and gas industry’s climate pollution to ensure progress toward meeting Colorado greenhouse gas reduction goals; and
- Governor Jared Polis needs to get Colorado back on track to meeting legally required greenhouse gas reduction targets and to ensure climate justice in the state.
And please, share you personal stories and experiences with the Air Commission! Help them understand that peoples’ health, lives, and futures literally depend upon them taking swift and effective action for clean air and the climate.
If you can’t attend the virtual hearing, then please e-mail comments to the Air Quality Control Commission today at email@example.com.
Colorado can and should be a leader in climate action in the United States. It’s up to us to make sure Governor Polis, the Air Commission, and other state leaders take the initiative to make it happen. Join us by speaking out for clean air and the climate on September 17. Then make sure Governor Polis hears directly from you that climate action can’t be delayed!
In response to mounting pressure over growing air pollution problems, Exxon subsidiary XTO Energy last week withdrew an application to construct a massive new natural gas processing plant in New Mexico.
This development is a big win for clean air, health, and climate. It’s also the latest victory in our efforts to confront the fracking industry in the Permian Basin, the world’s largest oil producing region.
Earlier this year, Guardians objected to the New Mexico Environment Department’s proposal to approve an air pollution permit that would have allowed XTO to build the Husky Gas Processing Plant and Central Delivery Point in southeast New Mexico.
The facility, which would have processed fracked gas from wells in the region, would have been a huge source of air pollution, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide, and smog forming emissions, like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.
Southeast New Mexico is already struggling with dangerously high air pollution levels. Fueled by a fracking boom, the region is violating health limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.
In our comments, we highlighted how approval of XTO’s permit was not legal under New Mexico’s air quality laws and regulations.
While the New Mexico Environment Department was still poised to approve XTO’s permit on September 7, 2020, the agency informed Guardians on September 2 that XTO withdrew its permit application.
However, from our standpoint, air quality concerns clearly factored heavily into XTO’s decision.
This new gas processing plant would have been a major installation, with XTO investing considerably in its planning. The company’s 700 page permit application contained exhaustive expert reports, schematics, studies, and analyses. Yet at the end of the day, XTO simply couldn’t demonstrate its new plant would protect clean air, health, and the climate.
XTO’s decision most likely reflects the fact that the company saw its proposed gas processing plant as a losing investment. Ultimately, the company’s decision is a stark reflection of the headwinds facing the oil and gas industry as they own up to their true environmental costs.
Finally, even the oil and gas industry recognizes it makes more economic sense to keep it in the ground.
WildEarth Guardians is on the frontlines challenging new fracking and new oil and gas industry infrastructure in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico. The latest decision by Exxon’s XTO Energy to withdraw an air pollution permit application is a testament to our ability to defend clean air and health from fossil fuels, and the potential of our strategies and tactics to yield big gains for the climate.
While air pollution from oil and gas extraction in New Mexico is on the rise, state regulators are effectively turning their backs on serious clean air problems and real solutions to meaningfully rein in the fracking industry’s toxic emissions.
It’s why WildEarth Guardians is working to confront New Mexico regulators and ensure they’re held accountable to putting climate, clean air, and health first.
It’s no secret that in New Mexico, the oil and gas industry is one the state’s largest sources of air pollution. Just in the last decade, companies have drilled unprecedented amounts of new wells, increasing oil and gas production more than 125%.
This development has unleashed a surge in emissions that have eroded clean air, filled the skies with more greenhouse gases, and undermined public health.
According to the American Lung Association, New Mexico now has failing air quality throughout the state. Reports further indicate that releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the oil and gas industry are higher than ever.
These impacts have been especially felt by people living in the heavily fracked northwest and southeast corners of New Mexico.
While there are more than 57,000 active wells in the entire state, more than 21,500 are located in the northwest, often referred to as the Greater Chaco region, and more than 34,300 are in the southeast, often referred to as the Greater Carlsbad region.
This pollution has especially endangered Navajo communities in the Greater Chaco region, as well as people living in and near the town of Carlsbad.
Perhaps the most vivid sign of how bad oil and gas has made the air in New Mexico is to look at ground-level ozone monitoring data from across the state.
The key ingredient of smog, ground-level ozone is a poisonous gas that forms when pollution from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas operations react with sunlight.
Ground-level ozone is so poisonous that even at very small concentrations, it can cause serious respiratory damage. Because of its risks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established health standards for ozone, limiting concentrations in the ambient air to no more than 70 parts per billion.
While normally ozone is a big city problem, it’s well known that oil and gas extraction can be a major contributor to ozone pollution, particularly in the western U.S.
The two key pollutants most responsible for forming ozone are volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. The oil and gas industry is a huge source of these gases.
Drilling, fracking, pipelines, and other operations and equipment release huge amounts of volatile organic compounds, a natural component of oil and gas and a key byproduct of production. Engines used for drilling, natural gas compression, trucks, pumps, and more are also major sources of nitrogen oxides.
Given this, it’s no surprise that the areas of New Mexico experiencing the highest ozone are the northwest and southeast portions of the state.
In the northwest counties of Rio Arriba and San Juan, ozone levels frequently exceed health standards and monitors in these counties are on the verge of violating Environmental Protection Agency health standards.
In fact, the ozone monitor in the town of Carlsbad in Eddy County has recorded the highest levels of ozone pollution in the state. Ozone has been so high in Carlsbad, it’s been comparable to pollution in big cities like Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles.
The numbers simply don’t lie: the oil and gas boom in New Mexico is fueling a dangerous smog boom.
In spite of high ozone, the New Mexico Environment Department continues to approve permits for the oil and gas industry to build new sources of air pollution.
Even in southeast New Mexico, where monitors are clearly violating ozone health standards adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department is rubber-stamping dozens of new permits monthly.
Just this week, WildEarth Guardians commented on dozens of new permit proposals, including for a natural gas compressor station in Eddy County and for more than 20 permits for other oil and gas production facilities.
At a hearing in June, the Environment Department stated that in southeast New Mexico, more than 30 permits are being approved every month.
Each new permit authorizes companies to release more volatile organic compounds and more nitrogen oxides, the very pollutants that are fueling the region’s ozone violations.
From a health standpoint, it’s insane that the Environment Department keeps approving more permits for more pollution, effectively worsening ozone problems in the state. However, it’s also illegal.
Under New Mexico law, the Environment Department must deny pollution permits if they would cause or contribute to violations of air quality standards. The agency’s regulations explicitly state that permits can’t be approved where emissions would “cause or contribute” to air pollution in excess of ambient air quality standards.
That’s why over the past few months, WildEarth Guardians has been filing legal appeals of the New Mexico Environment Department’s approval of new permits for the oil and gas industry to pollute.
In petitions filed in May and June, we called on the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board, an appeals board comprised of citizens, to overturn the Environment Department’s permits. Just this week, we filed an expert report highlighting how the Department’s permitting defies facts and reality.
In the meantime, the New Mexico Environment Department keeps cranking out the permits. Just this week, the Department published notice that it intends to approve a pollution permit that would allow Exxon subsidiary, XTO Energy, build a massive new gas processing plant in southeast New Mexico.
To their credit, the New Mexico Environment Department has proposed to adopt new rules that the agency claims will reduce oil and gas industry emissions and rein in the state’s ozone pollution.
As part of an “Ozone Attainment Initiative,” the Department released draft regulations at the end of July and is now asking for public comment on the rules.
While a refreshing step forward for clean air in New Mexico, a closer look at the proposed rules leaves much to be desired.
For one, the Environment Department hasn’t completed any modeling to demonstrate the draft rules will actually reduce ozone to safe and healthy levels. While modeling is in the process of being completed for the “Ozone Attainment Initiative,” a recent presentation indicates it won’t actually be done until after November 2020.
The draft rules are also riddled with loopholes and exemptions, including a proposal to exclude small oil and gas well sites (often called “stripper wells”) from regulation. It’s estimated this “small well exemption” would apply to around 95% of all wells in New Mexico, effectively keeping the industry unregulated.
Also of concern is that the rules continue to allow the oil and gas industry to flare as a means to control air pollution. Burning gases to control emissions is a wasteful and, in many cases, just as polluting practice.
Not surprisingly, in a virtual public meeting held this week, the New Mexico Environment Department faced extensive criticism over the loopholes and exemptions in its draft regulations.
More importantly, the draft rules completely ignore the need to address disproportionate impacts to people and communities living in close proximity to well sites, particularly Tribal communities, people of color, and low income or other marginalized groups.
Put another way, the rules do nothing to advance environmental justice and protect the most vulnerable, most discriminated, and most disenfranchised in New Mexico. It’s shocking given the Environment Department’s own stated commitment to advancing environmental justice in the state.
To be sure, the regulations are only draft at this point and we still have a lot of work to do to review, critique, and make recommendations to the Environment Department.
However, it is disappointing that the Environment Department has not put forward draft regulations that seem to fully rise to the challenge of protecting clean air, climate, and health in New Mexico.
Right now, the New Mexico Environment Department is certainly not doing everything it can and should to safeguard air quality and health in New Mexico. Amid recent revelations a critical ozone monitor in Carlsbad fell into disrepair, it’s clear the Department has to step it up.
However, it’s also clear that the oil and gas industry’s refusal to keep its toxic air pollution in check is making it more difficult than ever for regulators to effectively protect people.
As the industry rebounds after plummeting oil and gas prices earlier this year, reports indicate flaring and venting of natural gas has surged in New Mexico.
Company’s also continue to flout clean air laws and violate their pollution permits. Just last month, the Environment Department fined a company more than $5 million for ongoing illegal releases of toxic gases. Earlier this year, the agency put several companies on notice of outstanding clean air violations.
And in the last five years, oil and gas companies have repeatedly reported illegal emissions and been busted for violating their permits. The map below, which is from a New Mexico Environment Department online interactive map, shows just a few facilities in southeast New Mexico that have reported excess emissions or that have cited for violations.
The New Mexico Environment Department clearly needs to up its game and actions, but with the oil and gas industry’s defiance to clean air mounting, the challenge for the Department is increasingly immense.
Still, the reprehensible actions of fracking companies are no excuse for the Department to not do everything possible–and legally required–to put clean air, climate, and health first in New Mexico. This means taking action to deny pollution permits and to ensure that new rules truly deliver the strongest safeguards possible.
And ultimately it means taking action to help New Mexico put an end to fracking and start keeping oil and gas in the ground. As we’ve highlighted, the state can’t possibly protect clean air and the climate so long as oil and gas extraction occurs with impunity.
Stay tuned for updates, including information on how you can weigh in and help make a difference for climate, clean air, and health in New Mexico and beyond!
WildEarth Guardians and a coalition including states, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and other conservation organizations have launched a new legal challenge against the Trump administration’s decision to open millions of acres of public lands for new coal leasing and mining. That 2017 decision ended an Obama-era leasing moratorium that had protected public lands from new coal strip mines, and the water, air, and climate pollution such mines cause.
A U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Montana, ruled in April 2019 that the Trump administration’s decision to end the moratorium broke the law because the administration failed to evaluate the environmental harm from its decision. However, earlier this year, the Trump administration attempted to remedy that violation by releasing a widely-criticized environmental assessment. The assessment looked at only four coal leases that the Bureau of Land Management had already issued, and concluded the leases did not cause any significant harm to the environment. The assessment did not consider Bureau’s other coal-leasing activities over the 570-million acre federal mineral estate, which contains approximately 255 billion tons of mineable coal.
“The Trump administration is blatantly selling out the American public in a corrupt attempt to appease the dying coal industry,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “This latest legal effort is about enforcing the fact that the public interest comes first, not the demands of climate denying coal executives.”
Read the press release.
TAKE ACTION to keep dirty coal in the ground.
WildEarth Guardians today filed a lawsuit to get Colorado back on track for climate action.
The legal action comes as Governor Jared Polis and his administration missed a July 1, 2020 deadline to ensure the state meets legally required greenhouse gas reduction targets, including a 26% reduction in emissions by 2025, a 50% reduction by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2050.
In missing the July 1, 2020 deadline, Governor Polis isn’t just jeopardizing the state’s commitment to confronting the climate crisis, he’s also putting the state’s goal of climate justice at risk.
As we wrote earlier this week together with our friends with GreenLatinos, a lack of meaningful climate action puts disproportionately impacted people and communities, including those living in the shadow of the Suncor oil refinery north of Denver, at great risk.
Take Action! We need your help to really secure climate justice in Colorado. Tell Governor Jared Polis it’s time for real climate action.
Read the press release.
We’ve highlighted before how New Mexico’s plan to let the oil and gas industry dump their toxic waste onto crops and into the state’s streams is a horrible idea that threatens to undermine climate progress.
Sadly, despite calls for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to put the brakes on these plans, her administration has decided to kick things into high gear.
At the end of June, the state’s Oil Conservation Division announced it intends to amend its regulations to make it easier for the oil and gas industry to transport and use its toxic waste while drilling and fracking.
Worse, the proposed regulations would even authorize the dumping and discharge of this waste outside of oil and gas producing regions.
While billed as regulating “produced water,” the fluids that would be regulated under the proposed rules are anything but water. As reports across the U.S. have found, this “water” is actually a toxic cocktail of radioactive materials, heavy metals, proprietary fracking chemicals, and other contaminants that is known to be dangerous.
The Oil Conservation Division’s proposed regulations seem benign, but within the details lurks a disturbing devil. For example:
- The rules would allow oil and gas companies to use and transport “produced water” when drilling and fracking, provided that public health, the environment, and fresh water are protected. Unfortunately, there exist no standards or safeguards to actually protect public health, the environment, and fresh water from “produced water.” In fact, this waste is considered too toxic to treat. There is no way for the Commission to ensure that the use and transport of the oil and gas industry’s toxic waste will protect workers, groundwater, surface waters, and otherwise ensure the environment is not contaminated.
- The rules would allow the oil and gas industry to discharge or otherwise dump its toxic waste outside of oil and gas producing areas. Although the rules would allow this only where approved by the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission, they explicitly imply that the Commission will at some point adopt rules that will actually allow the dumping of “produced water” onto lands and in streams. This is a scary proposition considering that there are no known methods to safely treat this waste. The Oil Conservation Division’s rules appear to set the stage for a more insidious plan to allow companies to dump their toxic waste into our environment.
Overall, the Oil Conservation Division’s rules would set a dangerous precedent. Rather than help New Mexico transition away from reliance on oil and gas, they would further entrench and enshrine the industry, jeopardizing the state’s health, environment, and its ability to confront the climate crisis.
The Oil Conservation Commission is holding a virtual public hearing on July 30 on their proposed regulations. Stay tuned for more information as we continue to dig in to protect New Mexico’s clean water.
We can’t afford to let New Mexico get fracked! TAKE ACTION: Don’t let the oil and gas industry dump its toxic fracking waste in New Mexico.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis and his administration yesterday missed a legally required deadline to propose new climate regulations, further setting back progress toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the state.
By law, the Polis administration was required to propose new regulations to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets by July 1, 2020. That day has now passed with no new regulations.
With reports confirming the state was already not on track to meet its climate goals, WildEarth Guardians is stepping up to soon file suit to enforce the July 1, 2020 deadline and upping calls for Governor Polis to fulfill his commitment to climate progress in Colorado.
The Polis administration’s lack of effective climate action isn’t just jeopardizing the state’s ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a major environmental justice concern. Landmark climate legislation passed in 2019 required the state to prioritize reducing greenhouse gases where emissions disproportionately impact Black and Latino communities, low income neighborhoods, and Indigenous peoples.
Calls for Governor Polis to confront environmental racism and advance environmental and climate justice have mounted in the wake of the George Floyd protests, emphasizing that social inequities are directly related to environmental inequities.
In spite of some positive steps to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, the Polis administration has fallen behind in achieving meaningful reductions. A recent letter from Polis’ Air Pollution Control Division confirms that current progress is “not sufficient” to meet the state’s legally required climate milestones.
In response to Colorado’s missed climate deadline, WildEarth Guardians is doubling down on calls for Governor Polis to:
- Immediately suspend approving air pollution permits for new sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Help retire the state’s largest industrial sources of climate pollution, including the Suncor oil refinery in north Denver, as quickly as possible.
- Commit Colorado to achieving 100% renewable electricity generation by 2030.
- Phase out fracking in the state by 2025.
Under House Bill 1261, which passed and was signed into the law by Governor Polis in 2019, Colorado must reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050.
[BREAKING: Speak out today to defend Greater Chaco from fracking! Tell the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs NO MORE BROKEN PROMISES!]
[And PLEASE, support COVID-19 relief efforts in the Far Eastern Chapters of the Navajo Nation, click here to donate >>]
The Trump Administration’s push to open up public lands for fracking has hit a callous new low in the Greater Chaco region as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management barrels ahead to approve more than 3,000 new oil and gas wells even as impacted Indigenous communities bear the brunt of a major COVID-19 outbreak.
The Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico is the sacred heart of the American Southwest. It’s home to Chaco Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Over a thousand years ago, it was the realm of the Chacoan people, the ancestral Puebloans who constructed kivas and dwellings across the landscape.
Today, Pueblo people still maintain a living and spiritual connection to the landscape and it sustains Navajo and New Mexico communities.
While Chaco Canyon is at the core of the Greater Chaco landscape, the “Chaco World” extended far beyond, even into northeast Arizona, southwest Colorado, and southeast Utah.
Sacred Lands Under Siege by Fracking
For years now, Greater Chaco has been under attack by the oil and gas industry.
With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, companies have tapped previously unreachable geologic formations using destructive industrial development. Much of this development has occurred under the watch of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than two million acres of public lands and minerals in the region.
Since 2013, the Bureau of Land Management has permitted more than five hundred fracking wells in Greater Chaco. With more than 90% of all lands in the region leased to the oil and gas industry for drilling, the threat looms large.
This drilling has utterly transformed and degraded the landscape, fueling more air pollution, more safety concerns, more truck traffic, and more industrial development where there previously was none.
It’s also put the health and welfare of adjacent Navajo communities more at risk than ever.
Frack Off Chaco
Fortunately, the Bureau of Land Management’s relentless push to drill and frack in Greater Chaco has galvanized a movement.
To begin with, the Frack Off Greater Chaco Coalition emerged, uniting Indigenous community leaders, Native groups, nonprofits, and public lands and water protectors around the call to stop fracking in the region.
As part of this coalition, we joined with Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, NRDC, and the Western Environmental Law Center to win an unprecedented legal challenge to fracking in Greater Chaco.
Most recently, the Navajo Nation and All Pueblo Council of Governors, National Congress of American Indians, 15 Navajo Chapter Houses, the New Mexico Legislature, the New Mexico State Land Office, and over 500,000 people have called on the agency to stop fracking Greater Chaco.
Federal legislation was also introduced by New Mexico’s Congressional Delegation to increase protections. Called the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, the bill would take the first steps toward protecting this landscape by making the 10 mile area around Chaco Canyon off limits to drilling.
“It’s important that we protect Chaco Canyon, both because it is a sacred place that should be valued the same way we value other sacred places, but also because public lands must be protected.”
– New Mexico U.S. Representative, Deb Haaland
At one point, even the Bureau of Land Management seemed to be coming around.
In 2013, the agency announced it needed to update a 2003 management plan for the Farmington Field Office, which encompasses most of the Greater Chaco region. Promising to be accountable to Tribes and the public, the Bureau of Land Management, together with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, committed to strengthening safeguards to protect cultural values and health.
From October 2016 to February 2017, the agencies held 10 public meetings and received thousands of comments to guide the development of the new plan.
In response, the agencies released a “scoping report,” promising the new plan would address climate change, water and soil resources, environmental justice, the “Chaco Cultural Landscape,” public health and safety, Tribal interests, truck traffic and road conditions, wildlife, and other issues impacted by fracking.
Sadly, the agencies have now reneged on their promises.
In March, the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs released their draft management plan. Sadly, the plan opens the door for more fracking and stands to leave the cultural integrity and health of the Greater Chaco region more vulnerable than ever.
Under the various alternatives, the agencies project between 2,345 and 3,101 new oil and gas wells in the Farmington Field Office.
The plan would also make nearly a million acres available for sale to the oil and gas industry for more extraction. Many of these lands are in or near Navajo communities.
More Fracking in the Midst of a Health Crisis
The Bureau of Land Management’s proposed plan would sacrifice the Greater Chaco region’s cultural integrity, endanger communities, and jeopardize clean air, water, and the climate.
What’s worse is that the agency is plowing ahead to approve more fracking even as Indigenous communities are struggling with an outbreak of COVID-19.
Citing the burden of managing the COVID-19 health crisis within Tribal communities, there has been a near-unanimous call for the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs to extend the public comment period for its proposed plan. Tribal officials, Congressional leaders, state and local officials, and the general public have all spoken out.
In response, the agencies rejected the requests and instead scheduled a series of “virtual” public meetings, a move that has been widely condemned.
Pointing to a lack of adequate internet access within Tribal communities and the ongoing strain of the coronavirus pandemic, leaders, like U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland and Raul Grijalva, have ripped the agencies over their lack of compassion and sensitivity.
Not surprisingly, as the virtual meetings have unfolded, the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs have faced heated criticism. Tribal leaders, local officials, and members of the public have overwhelmingly delivered the message that the agency’s so-called public engagement is shameful, insulting, and racist.
#NewMexico Pueblo leaders resoundingly speaking out against @BLMNewMexico plans to expand fracking in #GreaterChaco region of NW New Mexico. Santa Clara Pueblo rep reams out agency! pic.twitter.com/hO00l5Ct0v
— WildEarth Guardians' Climate and Energy Program (@ClimateWest) May 15, 2020
A Call to Action
In the meantime, we’re stepping up the resistance more than ever.
And in the past few weeks, WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club, NRDC, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and many other organizations have reached out to millions of people calling on them to speak out and weigh in.
The big news is that on May 27, 2020, the Frack Off Greater Chaco Coalition will hold a People’s Hearing to Defend Greater Chaco, where it’s intended to provide a forum for all people to weigh in and interact.
While the hearing will be virtual and held over Zoom, the Coalition intends to read any and all comments submitted by people, to play videos or audio submitted, and to overall give people a forum to actually speak out.
Unlike the Bureau of Land Management’s virtual public meetings, there will be no time limits for public comment, nobody’s video turned off, and certainly no dead silence or elevator music.
Watch the video below to learn more about the People’s Hearing to Defend Greater Chaco!
We’re not going to back down until we’ve secured the protections the Greater Chaco region needs and deserves.
That means that we won’t relent in defending Greater Chaco until the Bureau of Land Management has agreed to stop selling public lands for fracking, has agreed to landscape-level cultural protections, and has agreed to wind down and ultimately phase out fracking entirely in the region.