BLM defers sale of oil, gas leases in Chaco Canyon area

By Rebecca Moss | Santa Fe New Mexican
February 8, 2019

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reversed course Friday, saying certain land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park would no longer be offered at an oil and gas lease sale in March.

Environmental advocates, tribal groups and Democratic lawmakers said last week they opposed the agency’s move to auction off land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the culturally sensitive site.

The park is considered an epicenter for Native heritage, replete with ancient archaeological ruins, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Opponents of the sale have said federal officials failed to complete a land management plan that would in part study how deep horizontal fracturing would impact the region.

Lawmakers also criticized the Department of the Interior for moving forward with the sale amid the federal government shutdown and protest from Native stakeholders.

“We believe it is best to defer these parcels at this time,” Tim Spisak, New Mexico state director for the BLM, said in a news release Friday. “We will continue to gather information to inform the decisions we make about leasing in this area.”

About 1,500 acres will be excluded the federal lease sale, which is scheduled for March 28.

It is the third time the Trump administration has planned to sell parcels near Chaco Canyon and then deferred the leases.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., lobbed criticism at the Interior Department last week for planning to lease parcels near Chaco. The BLM is now taking the appropriate course of action, he said in a statement Friday, but “this stop-start, shoot-from-the-hip approach is not sustainable or in anyone’s best interest.”

Udall said the administration should develop a sustainable management plan that would prevent any land within 10 miles of the national park from being used for oil and gas extraction until the area can be studied to consider how the industry would impact public health and cultural sites.

Earlier this week, New Mexico state senators introduced legislation that calls for a four-year moratorium on all new fracking leases in the state. This period, the senators said, would give state agencies time to study health, seismic vulnerabilities, water contamination and environmental impacts from fracking.

The legislation also would require extensive reporting from numerous state agencies related to fracking, from worker injuries to greenhouse gas trends.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association has said that fracking is a well-studied technology and that a pause on permitting, particularly amid an industry boom, would devastate New Mexico’s economy.

The BLM’s March lease sale will still offer 37 parcels in Sandoval, San Juan, Rio Arriba and Lea counties. A public protest period begins Monday.

This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

U.S. Senate bill creates 13 wilderness areas in New Mexico

By Rebecca Moss | Santa Fe New Mexican
February 12, 2019

A sweeping public lands conservation package that passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday with overwhelming support from both parties would establish 13 new wilderness areas in New Mexico, the largest land designation in a single year since 1980.

The Natural Resources Management Act, including 170 bills with provisions reaching into every state, passed on a vote of 92-8.

Together, the measures would permanently reauthorize the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund — which draws revenues for conservation efforts from offshore oil and gas drilling — and protect 1.3 million acres as wilderness, including more than 270,000 acres in New Mexico within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County.

The wilderness designation, which prohibits roads and motorized vehicles, would still allow for recreation, hunting, livestock grazing and law enforcement.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in a news release that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has “invested over $312 million to help protect our most cherished public lands, spur job creation and fuel our $9.9 billion outdoor recreation economy, a key economic driver in the state that employs 99,000 New Mexicans.”

The public lands package has broad support in the House of Representatives, where it faces a vote after the mid-February recess, and White House officials have indicated the president will sign it, according to the Washington Post.

Wilderness preservation has been the subject of ongoing conflict between Democrats and the Trump administration. Environmentalists feared early in President Donald Trump’s term that his administration would reduce wilderness designations in New Mexico, but that didn’t happen.

Conservation advocates hailed the bipartisan effort.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled that these special places are one step closer to being protected in their wild and natural states, providing New Mexicans and all Americans with ample opportunities to escape to the outdoors,” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, in a news release Tuesday.

“Given that New Mexico is home to the nation’s first designated wilderness area, it is gratifying to see that tradition of conservation and responsible stewardship of our public lands continue,” he said.

According to the organization, polls conducted in 2016 showed 78 percent of residents in Doña Ana County support wilderness protections in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and that 93 percent of registered voters in Taos County believe wilderness is important to them.

Udall’s news release said lodgers tax revenue in Taos increased by 21 percent a year after designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. “In addition,” the statement said, “gross-receipts revenue to businesses in Taos County in the accommodations and food service sector rose 8.3 percent in the second half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.”

The public land measures that passed Tuesday, and earlier iterations, have faced strong support and sponsorship from New Mexico Democrats in Congress, including former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who introduced legislation in 2009 to create wilderness in Doña Ana County.

A provision in the Natural Resources Management Act would permanently designate watershed management in the Rio Puerco Basin, which spans 4.7 million acres in New Mexico. This would continue collaborative effort to restore wetlands areas by resolving flood damage, controlling erosion and increasing vegetation.

A 12-year-old management program for the Rio Puerco Basin, critical for flow into the Middle Rio Grande Basin, was set to expire in March.

The provision to maintain the program was introduced by Udall and fellow U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.

“By the end of the last century, decades of poor land management and pollution combined with highly erodible soils created immense difficulties all along the Rio Puerco floodplain,” Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement.

“With a collaborative, comprehensive approach,” Heinrich added, “it is possible to make real progress in restoring the land and water in this watershed that is so central to communities in Western New Mexico.”

This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Public lands package protects 275,000 acres in NM

By Scott Turner | Albuquerque Journal
February 26, 2019

Almost 275,000 acres in New Mexico would be designated a wilderness area under a public lands package passed by the U.S. House on Tuesday night.

Two of the wilderness areas designated by the National Resources Management Act are within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, while 10 areas are within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

The two areas within Rio Grande del Norte National Monument are the Cerro del Yuta (Ute Mountain) and Rio San Antonio. The package also includes the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area comprising approximately 7,242 acres and a 2,250-acre expansion of the existing Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area near the Four Corners region. A total of 273,000 acres were designated wilderness areas in the state.

All three U.S. Representatives from New Mexico – Deb Haaland, Xochitl Torres Small and Ben Ray Luján – voted in favor of the package, which now goes to President Donald Trump for consideration. It passed the House by a 363-62 vote.

“The Public Lands Package is clearly in line with our values to protect our natural heritage, our resources, and ensuring future generations can enjoy the places we hold dear in New Mexico. My vote in support of the Public Lands Package will reflect these values while standing with the 99,000 New Mexicans employed in the outdoor recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement.

Haaland said on the House floor that the package would help the state “address the challenges of climate change.”

The package had the support of U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall. Both crafted parts of the legislation, as did Haaland. The package of bills originated in the Senate, where it passed 92-8.

Heinrich and Udall supported the provision to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which they said invested more than $312 million in New Mexico to protect public lands and open spaces, and increase recreational opportunities across the state, helping to bolster a $9.9 billion outdoor recreation industry.

“Authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund will help ensure that New Mexicans have access to safe drinking water, and our rivers, lakes and streams are protected for us all,” Luján said. “I’m also incredibly proud to have helped shepherd the passage of the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act, which ensures that two of New Mexico’s most stunning landscapes are protected for future generations.”

Included in the package was the Every Kid Outdoors Act, a bill co-sponsored by Heinrich and Sen. Lamar Alexander. Torres Small was also a sponsor in the House. It will provide America’s fourth-graders and their families free entrance to America’s public lands, waters and historic sites, including national parks. The package also reauthorizes the Rio Puerco Watershed Management Program, which facilitates federal and state agencies, tribal communities and local communities working together to reduce sediment and control erosion on the watershed.

“We are ecstatic that some of New Mexico’s best remaining wild places are one step closer to permanent protection so that future generations can experience the richness of our shared cultural and natural heritage” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild.

BLM continuing oil work in NM, despite shutdown

By Kevin Robinson-Avila | Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many government agencies have closed their doors under the federal shutdown, but at the Bureau of Land Management, it’s business as usual, at least for the oil and gas industry.

In Santa Fe, the BLM continues to prepare for two upcoming lease sales in March and June, and the agency is apparently still processing drilling applications for individual companies.

But environmental organizations say they’re locked out of the process, since the BLM has not publicly released information about what it’s doing, nor responded to inquiries.

“We don’t know what’s happening,” Ernie Atencio, New Mexico senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said on Friday. “Today is supposed to be the start of a 10-day protest period for the March lease sale, and we don’t even know if it’s going forward…They’re not being transparent or accountable to the public about what’s going on.”

That’s a problem because federal law requires the agency to carry out environmental reviews before it conducts lease sales, allowing the public to weigh in through open comment and protest periods, said Judy Calman, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

“BLM has an obligation to comply with all federally required environmental reviews and to manage public lands sustainably,” Calman said in a statement. “Instead it has chosen to allow oil and gas companies to bypass regulations and accountability as it approves these sales behind closed doors.”

The Alliance and five other environmental groups asked the BLM to postpone all oil and gas lease sales and approval of drilling permits during the federal shutdown in a letter Wednesday to the agency’s state director, Tim Spisak. The letter questioned whether enough BLM staff is working during the shutdown to conduct environmental reviews.

In an email to the Journal, the agency did confirm that some employees in New Mexico have been asked to return to their jobs under a federal recall order for BLM workers nationwide to resume lease-sale and permit-processing activities.

“Up to 25 employees will be tasked both in the state office and several of the field offices over the coming weeks to complete their portions of the work/analysis/review needed to conduct the March and June oil and gas lease sales,” the statement said.

Funds from last year plus “specific cost recovery” will pay for the work, according to the statement.

It’s unclear if “cost recovery” means fees on oil companies. But environmentalists say such fees raise conflict-of-interest concerns about BLM’s ability to issue leases and permits impartially.

The agency did not say whether it’s still processing permits.

The Center for Western Priorities, however, says scores of permits in New Mexico and elsewhere continue to be processed based on documentation gleaned from four BLM data bases.

“During the shutdown, BLM has approved six drilling permits in New Mexico and accepted another 103 drilling permits, by far the most of any state,” Center Policy Director Jesse Prentice-Dunn said in an email to the Journal.

You can read the original article here.