Victory for Chaco Canyon

BLM regional oil, gas lease sale smallest in years

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer
© 2009 The Associated Press

Oct. 19, 2009

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Bureau of Land Management this week is holding the smallest oil and gas lease sale the region has seen in five years after it declined to offer more than 100 parcels nominated by the industry, leaving only 51 up for grabs in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

“We had a lot of parcels that we started with, and it tells us that the process in place does in fact work,” BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said Monday. “The environmental assessments do a good job of screening out parcels that shouldn’t go forward.”

A dozen parcels near a national park and proposed wilderness in New Mexico did end up on the auction list, but the agency has since pulled them from Wednesday’s sale.

The New Mexico BLM office is withholding four of those parcels because they’re waiting for guidance from agency officials in Washington, D.C. The question is whether there should be a buffer between oil and gas development and more than 560 square miles in southern New Mexico that the state’s congressional delegation wants to protect as wilderness and a national conservation area.

Conservation groups had complained that the four parcels — covering more than 7,300 acres — were only seven miles from the proposed Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks wilderness area. Federal legislation was introduced just last month to protect the area’s granite mountain peaks, ancient lava flows and grasslands.

The BLM also yanked eight parcels covering more than 10,000 acres near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico because the Hopi tribe of Arizona protested that it had not been consulted about offering the public land for energy development.

Usually critical of the BLM’s management of oil and gas development, conservation groups said Monday the agency did the right thing by removing the dozen parcels from the lease sale.

Hummel said the agency always thoroughly reviews parcels nominated by the oil and gas industry to ensure they meet guidelines for leasing. She pointed to the eight parcels near Chaco, saying they had been deferred four times before so the agency could consult with local Indian tribes and the National Park Service.

Whether the removed parcels will be offered later depends on the outcome of talks with the Hopi tribe and how the agency decides to deal with the proposed wilderness and conservation areas, Hummel said.

Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said fallout from oil and gas leasing near national parks in Utah and a court decision earlier this year about development on New Mexico’s Otero Mesa are setting precedents that will force the BLM to carefully consider the impacts of drilling on public land.

Newcomer said political and public support for areas like the Organ Mountains will also play a role.

“There are a lot of people who are saying, ‘Preserve this area.’ You have the delegation, the governor, everybody coming out for it,” he said. “They have to look at that as an option — a no-lease, no-drill option.”

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