Natural Resources Committee passes bill to protect Chaco Canyon from future drilling

Pictured: The Chaco Landscape. The high desert of northwestern New Mexico supported the Chaco Culture for over 300 years.(Photo: New Mexico Wilderness Alliance)

Vote follows field hearing in April that revealed enormous local support

News Release

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee

The House Natural Resources Committee today approved Assistant Speaker Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) H.R. 2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which withdraws federal land around New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future oil and gas leasing. The bill is co-sponsored by Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Committee Vice-Chair Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif), Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

Chaco Canyon, a sacred site in northern New Mexico, is home to thousand-year-old dwellings and artifacts of the Pueblo culture. It is protected as a National Cultural Historic Park and is designated as a United Nations (UN) World Heritage Site. As the United Nations notes, among many other remarkable features, the site “has an ancient urban ceremonial center that is unlike anything constructed before or since.”

“Chaco Canyon is too sacred to drill, and it’s not the only sacred site the Trump administration is happy to pollute,” Chair Grijalva said. “Communities all over the country are calling for their landscapes, environment, resources and way of life to be protected from excessive oil and gas drilling. My colleagues and I went to New Mexico to hear directly from leaders and community members on this issue, and passing this bill today is the right thing to do. I’m grateful for the leadership of my colleagues from New Mexico who have worked tirelessly to protect Chaco, and I look forward to getting this bill to the House floor.”

“Oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco region would destroy that beautiful and sacred landscape and would permanently impact New Mexicans’ health and quality of life,” said Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján. “Passing my legislation to protect Chaco through the Natural Resources Committee today creates critical momentum to permanently ban oil and gas drilling. Critically, this legislation also sends a clear message that we will not allow the destruction of sacred lands by companies seeking to prohibit. I will continue to fight to protect this world-renowned site that holds significant cultural value to New Mexicans, Tribal communities, and the Pueblos. I implore the House to pass this bill so future generations may enjoy Chaco Canyon.”

“Protecting Chaco is part of who we are as New Mexicans,” Rep. Haaland said. “However, there are serious threats to our efforts from the oil and gas industry and my colleagues who benefit from those industries on the other side of the aisle. Some things are more important than money. Today, our bill to stave off those interests and protect the ancient homeland of the Pueblo people and a place that all New Mexicans treasure is one step closer to becoming a reality.”

In April, Grijalva, Luján, Haaland and Lowenthal held a field hearing in Santa Fe to hear directly from communities impacted by the dangerous levels of methane pollution in northern New Mexico from heavy oil and gas development. The lawmakers inspected oil and gas sites and toured Chaco Canyon Culture National Historic Park to hear from local indigenous leaders who support efforts to limit drilling near sacred land.

In June, the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a legislative hearing in Washington, D.C., to hear from tribal leaders, archeologists, and experts who relayed the urgent need to increase protections for Chaco Canyon. Video highlights of that hearing are available below.

Expanding oil and gas development in New Mexico poses serious threats not only to the land itself, but to communities throughout the region. Approximately 140,000 people live within half a mile of oil and gas facilities in New Mexico. The most recent data show that oil and gas operations in the state emit more than 1 million tons of methane every year, which is equal to $275 million in wasted natural gas.

The state’s methane emissions are the highest of any in the country. Methane and other chemicals from oil and gas development harm the health of local community members, fuel climate change, and result in the waste of a valuable public resource.

While New Mexico state authorities support restricting drilling on state lands within a 10-mile radius of the park, most land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park is federal or tribal, and Trump officials have made aggressive efforts to open federal public lands to leasing regardless of tribal wishes across the West.

The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is supported by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.); New Mexico Democratic senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich; tribal leaders; local community advocates; and environmental groups.

“While there is a short term moratorium on drilling in place, there's a vital need for this proactive legislation to pass if we want to ensure future generations inherit a place that has not been permanently scarred by unchecked energy development,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico state director of The Wilderness Society. “The interests of the Pueblos and Navajo Nation are being heard by our congressional champions and these lands could be permanently safeguarded by enacting H.R.2181.” 

“The National Parks Conservation Association applauds the House Natural Resources Committee for passing legislation that would permanently protect Chaco Culture National Historical Park from this administration’s short-sighted and reckless quest to drill at all costs,” said Matt Kirby, director of energy and landscape conservation at the National Parks Conservation Association. “The cultural landscape in and around Chaco is one of the most threatened regions in the country from this rampant oil and gas development. We urge the full House and Senate to show the same commitment to protecting the cultural resources around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.”

“Greater Chaco is a special place that deserves permanent protection. The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is necessary to ensure that this culturally significant landscape and neighboring communities will not be further devastated by oil and gas development,” said Alison Kelly, Senior Attorney at The Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Increased oil and gas development around Chaco Canyon would not only threaten the landscape and wildlife in the area, but the health and safety of all of the people who live in the region,” said Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “Already, more than ninety percent of our public lands in northwest New Mexico are under lease to oil and gas interests. New development will only exacerbate air and water pollution, fragment wildlife habitat and increase risks to public health.”

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee - Grijalva logo
(Image: Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee)

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