- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Environmental groups on Monday renewed their call to end hydraulic fracturing in northwestern New Mexico as part of an ongoing battle over oil and natural gas development and the protection of cultural and archaeological sites.

The groups delivered a letter to the Bureau of Land Management in Farmington, saying increased development has led to more truck traffic and dozens of new well pads over the last year, and that is harming the region that includes Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“It’s time BLM stops rubber-stamping permits to drill and starts planning to protect these communities, their traditional culture and our climate,” said Rebecca Sobel of WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that signed the letter.

The letter follows a court filing last month that seeks to stop the BLM from approving permits to drill in the Mancos Shale formation.

According to the groups, the BLM’s Farmington office has approved 265 permits since 2013 and more than 90 wells have already been drilled, fracked and flared. Fracking is the practice of high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals underground to free deposits of oil and gas.

The BLM declined to comment directly on the pending litigation but said it carefully reviews all permitted wells to ensure compliance with state and federal laws.

Agency spokeswoman Lisa Morrison said the BLM recognizes the importance of Chaco Canyon and has deferred all new leasing within a 10-mile radius of Chaco park until the management plan for the San Juan Basin is updated, likely in 2016.

The basin is one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S. and has been in production for more than 60 years. BLM officials say that since the 1950s, fracking has been used with nearly every well in the basin.

The agency has been working on a new management plan in the face of an expected shale oil boom. The groups have been pushing the agency to stop approving new permits until the plan is in place.

The BLM in January did postpone an oil and gas lease sale for more than 4 square miles in northwestern New Mexico, saying more time was needed to review public comments that raised concerns about environmental justice and other issues.

Environmentalists, the Hopi Tribe in Arizona and others have long criticized the idea of drilling near Chaco, a World Heritage site that includes a series of monumental stone structures that date back centuries. The area was considered a ceremonial and economic center for the ancestors of many Native American tribes in the region.

In May, members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent the U.S. Interior Department a letter asking that the agency work together with community members to ensure development near the park is carefully planned out.

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