US Delays Oil & Gas Lease by Tribe Land

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- U.S. land managers no longer plan to move forward next month with selling oil and gas leases near a national park, saying Friday they need to gather more information before they put up the land for bidding in New Mexico.

The decision by the federal Bureau of Land Management reverses a notice last week that showed the agency intended to proceed with drilling permit reviews and energy lease preparations for the site near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in March. The Chaco-area parcels lie within 10 miles (or 16 kilometers) of the remote park in northwest New Mexico that is a globally recognized historical site and sacred site for tribes.

A thousand years ago, historians say the remains of dwellings and stone structures where the park is located had been a ceremonial and economic hub for Pueblo people. In recent years, it has been a part of ongoing debate as federal officials repeatedly decline oil and gas exploration in what has become an informal buffer zone around the park.

"The BLM did the right thing by deferring these parcels from being leased on culturally-significant and fragile land in the greater Chaco area, a UNESCO world heritage site," U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, said in a written statement. "Some places are just too special to lose."

He and others, including tribal leaders, had criticized the Trump administration for scheduling the lease sale for the area amid the government shutdown.

They argued opponents were blocked from the decision-making process because federal officials did not release information about the planned sale. They also questioned whether federal officials would be able to adequately review the land up for bid.

While Udall applauded Friday's decision, he also noted it marked the third time the agency had deferred on selling the parcels under the Trump administration, which has sought to promote mining, drilling and other energy development on public lands. He described it as an unsustainable approach to handling the ongoing situation.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt earlier this week said that the Bureau of Land Management last year generated $1.1 billion from selling oil and gas leases. The announcement came during a visit to Hobbs, a city in southeast New Mexico that is at the center of the state's oil region.

The government still plans to sell oil and gas leases next month for other land parcels in the area of New Mexico where Bernhardt visited, as well the state's northwest region, which includes the Four Corners area, said Cathy Garber, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management.

At Acoma Pueblo, which has been outspoken against any Chaco-area drilling, Gov. Brian Vallo said the tribe appreciated federal land managers' decision to scrap the planned sale of the nine parcels near the park. But he said he remained concerned about the Bureau of Land Management's approach to consulting with tribes.

Nine parcels in Oklahoma also will be sold online March 28, Garber said.