FARMINGTON – The New Mexico delegation, led by U.S. House Assistant Speaker Congressman Ben Ray Luján, celebrated the passage of a bill Wednesday in the U.S. House protecting federal lands around Chaco Canyon from new oil and gas development.
The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act (House Resolution 2181), introduced in April, would establish a roughly 10-mile buffer area from oil and gas leasing around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, land sacred to many tribes throughout the Southwest and home to the Navajo Nation.
Luján, and fellow U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small, voted in favor of the bill, while U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich also expressed support for the measure. The bill passed 245-174, with bipartisan support.
Luján called the bill’s passage “a major victory for New Mexico and significant progress toward establishing permanent protections for Chaco Canyon,” in a written statement. “For at least a decade, drilling and extraction have threatened the sacred, ancestral homelands of the greater Chaco region, putting this treasured landscape at risk of desecration,” he said in a written statement.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said, in a written statement, “The bill aims to protect the land, structures and environment from any unanticipated adverse effects associated with unchecked oil and gas development in the region.”
Heinrich, who introduced the bill in the Senate with Udall, said in a written statement, “This is about listening to tribal leaders and all of New Mexicans who are calling on us to preserve the integrity of Chaco’s irreplaceable resources.”
Heinrich also invited U.S. Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhard to visit the region in May. Shortly after his visit, Bernhardt placed a one-year moratorium on new oil and gas drilling within the 10-mile protection area.
It is this statewide support that as been encouraging to many supporters and conservation leaders.
“The state of New Mexico is behind protecting Chaco,” said Mario Atencio, board member for Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, which was part of a lawsuit in a federal appeals court earlier this year against the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management for illegally approving oil and gas permits in the Greater Chaco region. WildEarth Guardians, the Western Environmental Law Center, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council were also included in the lawsuit.
Included in the bill’s provisions is an acknowledgment of the need for health studies focused on the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling throughout the region. Atencio said there have been local efforts to conduct health studies with the support of community organizations following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements, but a federally funded study would be a huge benefit. He said it would “fulfill a huge need in the community.”
While the bill will now head to the U.S. Senate, Atencio said there is more work to do locally. He said his organization and others working locally are still listening to community members and presenting a “holistic look at what oil and gas has done to the community.”