SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Thursday he'll extend the public comment period on a contested plan that will guide oil and gas drilling and other development in an area of northwestern New Mexico that includes a national park and locations important to Native American tribes.
A coalition of tribal leaders from New Mexico along with the state's congressional delegation, environmentalists and archaeologists had formally requested an extension in March and have been pushing for more time ever since.
They all pointed to the disproportionate effect the coronavirus outbreak has had on the Navajo Nation and other Native American communities, saying the limited resources tribes have are all focused on the public health emergency.
Bernhardt posted on social media that he decided to extend the comment period 120 days after meeting with Navajo President Jonathan Nez and the All Pueblo Council of Governors about efforts to fight COVID-19 and other challenges in Indian Country. The comment period had been set to end May 28.
"Obviously, the pandemic is an issue," Bernhardt told the Albuquerque Journal in an interview Wednesday.
Bernhardt said he "heard the voices of the pueblos" and has talked with Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico. He described both as feeling strongly about the issue.
Heinrich said Thursday he's hopeful the extra time will result in meaningful consultation with tribes and ensure policymakers "get this right." He called the Chaco area a precious landscape with irreplaceable resources.
The Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management have yet to issue a formal notice of the extension. For weeks, the Bureau of Land Management had not responded to any of the requests for an extension, fueling more angst from environmentalists and others who have been critical of the agency's handling of the planning process.
"After spending the pandemic pushing through environmental rollbacks and slashing royalties for oil and gas companies, Secretary Bernhardt is trying to repair his image," said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director with the Center for Western Priorities. "It shouldn't take weeks of outrage from tribal nations and members of Congress for Bernhardt to do the right thing at the eleventh hour."
Prentice-Dunn said Bernhardt should extend all public comment periods and pause all oil and gas leasing until taxpayers get "a fair return for resources on their public lands." He pointed to news that the Trump administration was giving energy companies temporary breaks on royalties and rent they pay to extract oil and gas from leases on public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management had said last month that royalty-rate cuts were possible if companies could show they could not successfully operate public energy leases economically or can't maintain enough employees at drilling sites due to the pandemic.
The Bureau of Land Management recently held a series of virtual public meetings to discuss an environmental review of proposed changes to the resource management plan that covers a large swath of northwestern New Mexico. The area is home to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is surrounded by a checkerboard of federal, state and tribal land that includes parcels overseen by the Navajo Nation as well as individual Navajo allotment owners.
The fight over drilling has been ongoing for years. Environmentalists are concerned about contamination, while archaeologists and tribes worry about the effects of unchecked development on cultural resources that lay beyond the boundaries of the protected park.