A federal appeals court yesterday rejected the Biden administration’s defense of unchecked oil and gas fracking in the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico, ruling the U.S. Interior Department flouted the law when approving 199 drilling permits in the culturally significant landscape.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is being hailed as a victory for Tribal and environmental groups who have worked for years to defend the landscape from rampant oil and gas extraction.
With Chaco Canyon at its heart, the Greater Chaco region is a living and ancient cultural landscape, spanning northwest New Mexico, southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, and northeast Arizona. Today, Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the Western Hemisphere. Yet for more than a century, the federal government has treated the Greater Chaco landscape like a national energy sacrifice zone.
In recent years, the Greater Chaco region has faced growing threats from oil and gas extraction, which has brought drilling, fracking, and industrial development onto public lands and into Diné communities. In spite of mounting calls to pause expanded oil and gas extraction the Biden administration has continued to rubberstamp more development, threatening communities, clean air and water, public lands, and the climate.
In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled the U.S. Interior Department illegally approved drilling permits in the Greater Chaco region in failing to analyze the cumulative impacts of oil and gas activities. In spite of the ruling, the Trump administration upheld hundreds more drilling permits, letting oil and gas companies drill and frack extensively in the region.
Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, WildEarth Guardians, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Western Environmental Law Center then filed a lawsuit to protect public lands and the climate, challenging the drilling permit approvals. At a court hearing before the 10th Circuit in September 2022, the Biden administration defended the Trump administration’s decision and analysis.
In its ruling yesterday, the 10th Circuit again ruled in favor of the conservation groups, finding the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to account for the impacts–including health effects–of toxic air pollution from oil and gas drilling and fracking and the impacts of added carbon pollution to the climate. This is the first time the 10th Circuit has ruled in favor of citizen groups on these issues. The 10th Circuit also ordered a halt to new drilling permits.
The 10th Circuit’s decision comes as the Biden administration in 2022 launched an “Honoring Chaco Initiative,” an effort to protect the Greater Chaco Landscape from unchecked drilling and fracking. Although the administration has been criticized for undermining its own initiative, the latest appeals court ruling presents an opportunity for the administration to live up to its promise to honor Chaco.
Statements from Appellant Groups:
“Diné C.A.R.E. has stood by frontline Diné communities and allottees to demand the Bureau of Land Management do its job and take a hard look at cumulative impacts, gross environmental injustice, and crisis causing climate change,” said Mario Atencio, Greater Chaco energy organizer, with Diné C.A.R.E. “Today’s 10th Circuit ruling shows that courage in the face of illegal exploitation can win victories for environmental justice. This case is about how the Bureau of Land Management, in the face of immediate, and continuing, protest by Diné communities, continues to embrace Trump-era decisions to allow fracking in Indigenous communities and thus, desecrating the sacred Greater Chaco Landscape, poisoning land, air, and water.”
“For too long the Bureau of Land Management has prioritized the extraction of oil and gas at the expense of the people and communities who have called Greater Chaco home for millennia,” said Kyle Tisdel, senior attorney and climate & energy program director with Western Environmental Law Center. “Frontline Diné communities and their allies were vindicated today in a step toward environmental justice. We will continue to demand justice, and that their water, health, and the climate stop being sacrificed to Big Oil profits.”
“With this latest court win, we hope President Biden and the Interior Department get the message that they have to stop illegally approving oil and gas extraction in the Greater Chaco region,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “This is an opportunity to truly honor Chaco and we hope the Biden administration seizes the opportunity to do the right thing by protecting communities, the climate, and public lands from the oil and gas industry.”
“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 court is now requiring the Bureau of Land Management to use accurate science in determining whether an action will have significant air quality, hazardous air pollution and cumulative environmental impacts,” said Mike Eisenfeld, Energy and Climate Program manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The court’s ruling will help protect the Greater Chaco Region from arbitrary analyses, and enforce environmental justice safeguards.”
A 4K UHD B-roll package of the Greater Chaco Region is available here: https://youtu.be/m5azjo8cRLw