Federal court suspends almost 200 Chaco drilling permits

Feb. 2—A federal appellate court has suspended nearly 200 permits to drill oil and gas in the Chaco Canyon area, ruling the Bureau of Land Management failed to sufficiently analyze the cumulative environmental impacts.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the BLM, which is part of the Interior Department, didn't properly gauge long-term impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The court's three-judge panel also ordered a freeze on new permits in the Chaco area until the lower court finds a remedy for the permits' faulty assessments.

The court's action blocks the Biden administration from carrying forward permits approved by the Trump administration, reflecting the president's tenuous position in trying to maintain energy supply even as Deb Haaland of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo, the first Indigenous woman to be interior secretary, vows to protect Chaco from oil development.

Tribal advocates and conservationists hailed the court's decision as a victory in protecting the environment, public health and the region's cultural sites, saying it could create a legal buttress in their battle against fossil fuel activity in the Chaco area.

"Hopefully it's an eye opening for the federal government that they really need to pay attention to what the local communities need and desire — and protecting the health and safety of the communities," said Terry Sloan, director of Albuquerque-based Southwest Native Cultures. "Particularly protecting our sacred land, air and water."

In the written ruling, the appellate court said the BLM adequately gauged water impacts but didn't go far enough in assessing climate-warming greenhouse gases and air pollutants that could harm nearby communities.

The agency incorrectly used a yearly emission to estimate what an oil well's air pollution would be over a 20-year period, the court said.

The judges also made clear they were looking at the 199 permits that have been approved and not the 161 that were pending.

Officials at the industry groups Western Energy Alliance and the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association didn't respond to requests for comment.

An attorney who helped with the litigation said some of the leases on which the permits are based date back decades, so having the court invalidate them is significant.

"This is really a precedent-setting decision that will impact oil and gas development, not only in the greater Chaco landscape, but around the West," said Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center.

Many of the permits would allow drilling near the proposed 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Tisdell said, referring to the UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern New Mexico.

Sloan complained the Biden administration has talked about safeguarding this region, in which many tribes have a deep cultural history and deem sacred — all while pushing ahead with fossil fuel permits after a relatively brief pause.

That includes Haaland, who is gathering input from tribes on creating broader protections in the region through discussions she calls the Honoring Chaco Initiative.

Conservationists and many tribal members have warned of the adverse effects horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — can have on an area.

Although the court found no fault with the BLM's water assessment in these permits, Sloan said in general the region's groundwater has been treated as collateral damage for oil and gas drilling.

"Our water is scarce in New Mexico," Sloan said. "And yet we're allowing it to potentially be desecrated, poisoned and contaminated."