Biden moves toward blocking oil and gas work near Chaco Canyon, NM

Nov. 22, 2021

The Biden administration announced Nov. 15 it soon will begin a 2-year moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in a 10-mile buffer around the Chaco Canyon area in northwestern New Mexico.

The Interior Department said its Bureau of Land Management will publish a notice “in the coming weeks” to begin the 2 year “segregation” of federal lands. The time will be used to study whether and how to institute a 20-year moratorium in that area, which is within the prolific natural gas region of the San Juan basin.

Both the 2-year and 20-year moratoriums would be carried out under authority of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). The law mandates that such “withdrawals” of land cannot impede valid existing rights, including existing leases, explored or not.

Interior said President Biden was set to talk about the plan at a White House Tribal Nations Summit later in the day. Interior said the administration “is taking steps to protect the Chaco Canyon and the greater connected landscape.”

Chaco Canyon, inside the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, is already protected and unavailable for oil and gas leasing. But the reference to protecting “the greater connected landscape” was a clear signal of the likely outcome of the plan.

FLPMA does not allow withdrawals longer than 20 years. For a permanent barrier to drilling, Congress would need to act.

Natural gas region

The gas-rich San Juan basin spreads roughly from the Chaco Canyon area northward past the Four Corners to southeastern Utah. Drilling in the region has spread southward toward the canyon, sparking years of debate over how close to allow the drilling to get.

Leaders of the Navajo Nation, worried that drilling barriers could block a source of revenue for the tribe and for individual Navajo “unit holders” with property rights the area, adopted a policy in 2019 to advocate for a buffer zone of five miles rather than 10 around the park. But 10 was the commonly mentioned proposal, and now the Biden administration has tentatively adopted it, pending regulatory analyses and public comment.

Congress recently instituted a 1-year pause on new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius of the park.

Chaco Canyon contains valued archeological sites left by an ancient culture that the Pueblo Indians regard as ancestral. The Navajo also say they revere the area and want the canyon protected. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna.