Oklahomans split votes over protecting New Mexico park from oil and gas drilling


Land surrounding New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park would be off limits to nearby oil and gas exploration under a measure passed this week by the U.S. House of Representatives. The measure saw a split in votes by Oklahomans in the House.

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican joined Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn as they were among 245 House members who passed H.R. 2181.

Republican Reps. Kevin Hern, Frank Lucas and Markwayne Mullin were among the 174 who voted against the measure.

The park has been at the center of a debate for decades over how to manage energy development in northwestern New Mexico. The measure approved Wednesday would prohibit drilling on the checkerboard of federal land that borders the park. It would also end existing non-producing leases n the area.

Federal land managers have been deferring interest by the oil and gas industry in parcels within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of the park to address the concerns of environmentalists and Native American leaders. The legislation would codify that practice, essentially establishing a buffer around the park, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, is among the sponsors. He remembers first visiting the park years ago when he was in his 20s.

“There’s something incredible, magical, spiritual that you feel as you walk up to Chaco, touch those stones that have withstood the test of time and you think of all the people who came before us. It’s emotional,” Lujan said.

He said he is confident the legislation will have bipartisan support. He pointed to the willingness of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to defer drilling leases around Chaco while regulators prepare a new management plan for the region’s resources. Bernhardt’s decision came earlier this year after touring the world heritage site and meeting with leaders from the Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s pueblos.

Similar legislation to create a protective zone around Chaco is pending in the Senate.

The campaign to curb drilling in one of the nation’s oldest basins has spanned at least three presidential administrations. In recent years, concerns expanded beyond environmental impacts to the preservation of cultural landmarks.

The oil and gas industry has been operating in the San Juan Basin for nearly a century. Industry representatives have said existing federal laws and policies require extensive environmental and cultural reviews before drilling can happen and that any sites designated as culturally significant as a result are respected.

Tribal leaders and environmentalists have praised the legislation, saying it would better protect irreplaceable sites beyond the park.

The measure calls for withdrawing nearly 500 square miles (1,280 square kilometers) of federal land holdings, preventing future leasing of mineral rights.

However, passage would not mean development comes to a halt. Most of the land within the protection zone belongs to the Navajo Nation and individual tribal members who would retain their sovereignty and property rights.