Court Rejects Drilling and Fracking in New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Region

A U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the U.S. Interior Department defied the law when it approved 199 drilling permits in New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Region. The 10th Circuit ordered a stop to new drilling permits.

The recent ruling is not the first time the court ruled against the Interior Department. The 10th Circuit ruled in 2019 that the U.S. Interior Department illegally approved drilling permits in the region by not analyzing the cumulative impacts of the oil and gas industry. The Trump administration let oil and gas companies drill and frack in the region. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the drilling permit approvals. 

Biden Defends Trump Ruling

The Biden administration defended the Trump administration’s decision to uphold the permits at a court hearing before the 10th Circuit in September 2022. After the Biden administration defended the Trump administration’s decision, a coalition of over 50 groups sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior Department, Deb Haaland:

“Given the Interior Department’s pledge to honor the Greater Chaco region, this decision is especially disconcerting,” the letter stated. “The 45,000 acres of oil and gas leasing approved under the Trump administration was not only illegal, but it was also the result of fast-tracking for the oil and gas industry at the expense of public notice, environmental justice, community outreach, the climate, and the region’s air and water.”

In 2022, the Biden administration launched the Honoring Chaco Initiative to protect the region from drilling and fracking. The initiative is at odds with the administration’s stance on drilling and fracking in the Greater Chaco region. The administration’s stance also puts it at odds with its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030.

“If we want to have clean air to breathe and pass on a liveable planet to the next generation, we must end fracking on public lands,” said Miya King-Flaherty, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter’s organizing representative. “It’s way past time for this administration to live up to its promise to honor the Greater Chaco landscape and prioritize climate and environmental justice.”

The Cultural Significance of the Greater Chaco Region

The Greater Chaco Region contains the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the home of Ancestral Puebloan civilizations. Navajo live in the region.

The area is one of only 20 World Heritage sites in the United States. It consists of almost 8,000 square miles in northwestern New Mexico. Starting in 700 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans built monuments of architecture and engineering in the area. Ruins still exist, and more than two dozen tribes still consider the region sacred, using cultural sites for ceremonies and celebrations.

Oil and Gas Development

Over 91 percent of available land in the region is leased to oil and gas companies, and there are thousands of oil wells. The Nixon administration designated the Four Corners area, which includes the Greater Chaco Region, an “energy sacrifice zone.” The invention of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) allowed companies to drill into rock to reach oil and gas deposits. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 designated the BLM Farmington Field Office as a pilot office, giving it extra resources to expedite fossil fuel development. The Act also exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. 

Image credit Mobilis in Mobili on Flickr

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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