Congress measures conflict over drilling near sacred sites

By MORGAN LEE | Mon, April 15, 2019 01:06 EDT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Lawmakers ventured thousands of miles from Washington to collect testimony Monday as advocates urge members of Congress to establish greater restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling near ancient Native American cultural sites in the Southwest.

A research trip by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources culminated Monday in a public field hearing at the New Mexico Capitol.

Lawmakers were expected to hear from tribal leaders, top state officials, archaeologists and other advocates at an event led by U.S. Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Scheduled panelists did not include oil producers or Bureau of Land Management officials that oversee federal mineral leasing.

The House committee was exploring the possible impacts of air pollution on sacred sites. At the same time, New Mexico's all-Democratic delegation to Washington is seeking to halt new oil and natural gas lease sales on federal holdings within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Federal lawmakers visited there Sunday.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has said many tribes that trace their heritage and traditions to Chaco's ancient stone structures and avenues want to protect a broad swath of territory beyond the national park from damage by incursions by industry.

"This landscape is part of our past, our present and our future," Santa Clara Pueblo tribal Gov. Michael Chavarria told reporters last week. "Until this area is permanently protected, we are living in a state of uncertainty and doubt."

Oil industry representatives say robust protections already are in place within the national park at Chaco Canyon, and beyond the park, federal authorities including the Bureau of Land Management require detailed land surveys prior to drilling.

"Those archaeological surveys are baked into the process," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance that represents more than 300 oil and natural gas companies. "Any development on those leases would have to go through cultural surveys as specified under the Natural Historic Preservation Act and other laws."

She highly doubts the Republican-led U.S. Senate will endorse the buffer. "It's largely a messaging thing at this point," she said of Monday's hearing.

The proposed buffer zone includes a mix of state, federal and tribal lands — as well as parcels owned by individual Navajos. Some of those lands would not fall under the legislation, which calls for tribal autonomy.

There currently already are more than 130 active wells within that area, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

In recent years, federal land managers repeatedly have deferred any interest by the oil and gas industry in parcels that fall within the propose buffer.

New Mexico has promised to pursue its own moratorium on oil and gas lease sales on state trust land within the buffer zone, at the direction of Democratic State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.

The Bureau of Land Management continues to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on revamping a resource management plan for broader San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, a prolific production area for natural gas. Years in the making, a draft is expected in a few months.

The partnership between the two agencies was meant to ensure tribes would be consulted and that scientific and archaeological analysis would be done to guarantee cultural sensitivity.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.