(CN) – The Bureau of Land Management has released alternative plans for oil and gas drilling across a stretch of northern New Mexico that encompasses tribal cultural landmarks.
The San Juan Basin comprises all or parts of San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, and Sandoval counties in New Mexico and extending north into southwestern Colorado. The region is a major producer of hydrocarbons, primarily natural gas, and today there are more than 300 oil fields and more than 40,000 drilled wells in the basin.
The basin is also the location of Chaco Canyon, which was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture. The canyon area contains monumental buildings, astronomical structures, cliff dwellings, and extensive rock paintings dating back to at least the 9th century BC. The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site which also includes the Aztec Ruins National Monument and several smaller Chaco sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin, where Chaco Canyon is located, has been a source of debate and concern for decades. In recent years, concerns expanded beyond environmental effects to the preservation of cultural landmarks as tribes joined with environmentalists and archaeologists to warn that unchecked development could compromise significant sites outside the boundaries of the World Heritage site.
The draft resource plan amendment and environmental impact statement released Friday by the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs include an option that emphasizes the protection of cultural landscapes. Other options cover a range of ecological and economic considerations.
The documents say innovations in the oil industry along with favorable prices have improved the economics of developing more areas within the San Juan Basin, but public interest groups have concerns about the cumulative effects of drilling in the region on environmental safety, public health and the protection of cultural sites outside Chaco.
“Hundreds of groups and tribal nations have called for reprieve, but any hope for environmental justice looks grave,” Rebecca Sobel, who works on climate and energy issues for WildEarth Guardians, told The Associated Press.
The public will have 90 days to comment on the presented alternatives. A final decision is not expected for several months.