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Note to BLM on NM’s Chaco Canyon: ‘The Public is Watching’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After a shortened public-comment period, the Bureau of Land Management is planning to open land in the Greater Chaco region to more oil and gas development, even as Congress considers legislation to protect the culturally significant area.

Miya King-Flaherty with the Rio Grande Sierra Club said the BLM is proposing up to 40 new fracking wells and 22 miles of new pipeline northwest of the community of Lybrook on the Navajo Nation. Previous administrations followed the National Environmental Policy Act and held 60-day public-comment periods, she said. But this one was only 10 days.

“The public just doesn’t have ample time to be able to comment or oppose, or provide their reasons for why continued expansion of fracking is going to be a detriment to the area,” King-Flaherty said.

In Congress, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act would prevent any future leasing or mineral development on federal lands within a 10-mile radius around Chaco National Historical Park. Earlier this month, in a win for environmental groups, a federal court ruled some previous oil and gas drilling and fracking permits approved by the BLM for the region were illegal.

The appeals court ruling stemmed from a 2015 lawsuit holding the BLM failed to consider the cumulative impacts to air, water and the Navajo Nation in its environmental assessment. Kyle Tisdel, energy program director and attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, noted the court reversed only 25 drilling permits – but said it was still a big win.

“I think not only will it reset the agency in terms of its decision-making processes going forward, but there are a whole host of decisions that the agency has already made over the last four or five years that are vulnerable based on the court’s decision,” Tisdel said.

Last week, the BLM stripped its conservation-focused mission statement from agency news releases. The releases previously noted that the BLM sought to “sustain America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” The new language highlights the “economic” value of public lands.

King-Flaherty said the BLM needs to remember the public is watching.

“This is just another systematic way for the BLM to make sure the public’s concerns are not considered,” she said. “And it also goes to show that the BLM is really just prioritizing industry profit over protecting the environment, community health and safety.”

The BLM oversees more than 248 million acres of public land, primarily in the Western US.

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