FARMINGTON – Environmental advocates are calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington office to postpone on-site visits – part of the permitting process – to proposed oil and gas sites during the pandemic, which they say clash with New Mexico’s stay-at-home orders and further endanger at-risk groups.
The on-site visits are the result of a 2010 settlement with the Farmington BLM field office, requiring it to schedule in-person visits to future drill sites and provide stakeholders and community members an idea of what the sites look like.
“It flies in the face of any kind of government responsibility to schedule these remote on-sites during a pandemic,” said Don Schreiber on Monday. Schreiber is a rancher and environmental advocate.
A series of on-site visits was originally scheduled for June 2, the date of the primary election in New Mexico. After receiving pushback from activists like Schreiber and San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Farmington field office Wednesday decided to reschedule the on-site visits to June 9.
But Schreiber and others say the one-week delay does not address the problem of on-site visits and well-permitting process during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a region that has been hit especially hard by the virus. As of Thursday, San Juan County – with 1,451 positive cases of COVID-19 out of 10,366 completed tests – had the second-highest number of cases in the state, after McKinley County.
Schreiber, who has attended more than 100 of the on-site visits, said it is a crucial opportunity to have a say in where the well will finally be drilled.
“On-sites are the only time you have to get all the parties at the same place,” he said. On-site visits typically draw representatives from the BLM, the oil company, environmental groups, community members, contractors, environmental scientists and archaeologists.
“They’re designed to be collaborative and interdisciplinary,” said Mike Eisenfeld with San Juan Citizens Alliance.
BLM Farmington Field Office Manager Richard Fields did not respond to a request for comment by Thursday. But in a letter to Schreiber, Fields said to address COVID-19 concerns the agency would limit the number of people at an on-site visit to five or fewer. If more than five people wanted to attend, the field office would arrange to have an additional on-site visit. Fields wrote social-distancing requirements would be followed, and face coverings would be strongly encouraged.
“The BLM by pursing this approach, is not only potentially exposing these communities to getting sick but also potentially exposing their own employees to the coronavirus,” Eisenfeld said. “It’s not essential.”
The on-site visits now scheduled for June 9 are on the eastern border of the Navajo Nation, which has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued a state of emergency and a partial government shutdown through June 7 to help minimize the spread of the virus.
Schreiber and Eisenfeld say bringing in outsiders to those communities for on-sites poses a critical risk to a population already struggling to contain the spread of the virus and goes against public health advice.
“Why would you ask citizens to defy a stay-at-home order to go to a community that is pretty susceptible to the pandemic,” Eisenfeld said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced an extension of the comment period for the proposed oil and gas drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the surrounding region because of the coronavirus.
The original 90-day public comment period was set to end May 28, but the period has been extended to 120 days. It’s a move Schreiber, San Juan Citizens Alliance and several elected officials like Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico congressional delegation supported.
Fields wrote in the letter sent to Schreiber that the BLM Farmington office continues to follow the public health directives issued by Lujan Grisham about the coronavirus outbreak, and the agency “must follow the On-Shore orders related to oil and gas operations.”
Schreiber said the importance of the on-site visits lies in creating a personal connection with people who might not see eye-to-eye. Despite any ideological differences, “they’re still people there, and we can make a connection. It’s hugely important.”