A coalition of 32 Native American, community and environmental organizations urged the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management to halt the progress of development on federal lands in New Mexico until the COVID-19 health crisis has passed.
The group in a March 30 letter to Tim Spisak, BLM's New Mexico state office director, accused the federal agency of "carelessly continuing with business-as-usual" rather than supporting pandemic response efforts. The agency's conduct, the letter says, will have major implications for public lands and resources in New Mexico while public engagement is compromised by stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.
The letter, drafted by WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols, asks BLM to suspend oil and gas lease sales as well as public comment periods for drilling permits and resource-management plans in the state's oil and gas hot spots: the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico and the San Juan Basin in the northwest part of the state.
The coalition's request aligns with that of the New Mexico congressional delegation, which on March 20 sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt asking that he extend the public comment period on a draft resource-management plan amendment and environmental impact statement for development in the area around Chaco Culture National Historical Park by at least 120 days. The 90-day public comment period currently underway began Feb. 28 and is scheduled to conclude May 28.
The Navajo Nation, concentrated in the Chaco area and with a particular interest in its preservation, has been inordinately affected by COVID-19, with 214 confirmed cases and seven deaths as of April 1. Many of its members lack access to broadband internet for making comments outside the scope of an in-person meeting. Moreover, the lawmakers wrote, the federal government must abide by particular trust and treaty responsibilities to Native Americans that could be compromised under the current schedule. Several pueblos and other Native lands are also adjacent to the Chaco site.
BLM on March 26 sold nine Colorado parcels totaling approximately 10,415 acres for oil and gas development. The average $6/acre bid price was driven up by a 5-acre parcel that went for $52/acre. Remaining bids ranged from $2 to $12/acre in the sale. The minimum bid for BLM lease sales is $2/acre, but unsold parcels can go for less in subsequent, noncompetitive sales. Of 45 parcels offered during a March 24 lease sale in Nevada, only two were sold, both for $2/acre, according to that state's BLM website. New Mexico's next BLM lease sale is scheduled for May 18.
Colorado's 2019 law, SB 181, changes the mission of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from "fostering" to "regulating" the industry. The commission on March 16 published its new draft rules reflecting the mission change and moved its wellbore integrity rulemaking hearing to a later date to facilitate in-person attendance in response to pandemic-related shelter-in-place orders.
"It is critical that we get these rulemakings done correctly with all our partners," COGCC Director Jeff Robbins said in a news release.