Federal Court Delivers A Major Blow To Anti-Fracking Activists

Jason Hopkins | Energy Investigator

Environmental activists were handed a major loss after a judge ruled against their claims that oil and gas exploration in northwestern New Mexico broke federal law.

In an opinion issued Monday, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico rejected a litany of complaints made by environmental groups fighting to block energy development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. A host of organizations — including the the Natural Resources Defense Council, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and WildEarth Guardians — had argued to the court the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did not properly weigh the impact drilling would have on local environmental and cultural resources. Activists have been battling the issue in court since 2015.

“All of those individuals who visit those historic sites might be inconvenienced, or their experience might be less enjoyable, but that harm does not outweigh the potential hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars of economic harm the operators will endure,” Judge James Browning wrote, according to a report from E&E News.

The ruling by Browning, a George W. Bush appointee, was a major reversal from a decision he made last month. On March 31, Browning initially sided with drilling opponents who argued the BLM violated the National Historic Preservation Act when it approved some drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The park, which is home to thousand-year-old Ancestral Puebloan ruins and located near Navajo settlements, is off limits to energy exploration.

Environmental lawyers had celebrated his ruling at the time, but whatever victory occurred was short lived.

Browning’s 132-page opinion on Monday completely shot down their case, stating the BLM did, in fact, sufficiently review potential impacts of oil and gas drilling. The judge also determined the wells in question to be far enough away from historical sites to violate federal law, with most wells at least 10 miles away.

“That contention fails, because the Protocols governing the BLM require it to consider effects on historical sites within the [area of potential effect], and Chaco Park and its satellites are outside of the wells’ APEs,” the opinion reads. “Thus, that the BLM did not consider the wells’ effects on Chaco Park and its satellites did not violate the Protocols, so did not violate the NHPA.”

Oppositions groups had also argued drilling should be halted until the BLM updates their resource management plan in regards to hydraulic fracturing, but Browning ruled BLM was correct in ruling fracking and horizontal drilling would not significantly damage the surrounding environment.

Environmentalists may challenge the ruling in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the appeals court has already blocked their efforts to freeze drilling in the Chaco area in the past.

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