Federal ‘ban’ on new Chaco Canyon drilling expected

The Obama administration will announce an immediate ban on new drilling around Chaco Canyon, an archaeological site one of the finest examples of ancient American mountaineering architecture in the United States, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said on Friday.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Babbitt said approval of oil and gas lease sales in the area would have delayed significant archaeological work by archaeologist for more than three years. The Interior Department plans to issue new guidelines on drilling in sensitive areas by June.

“Allowing new drilling in the middle of the eastern pueblo would have undermined efforts to study the delicate conditions of the cultural and archaeological landscape in Chaco Canyon, not only for its unique archaeological gems, but also for its unique natural treasures,” Babbitt said.

The recommendation came after the Interior Department received 4,500 public comments. The plan would prohibit new drilling as well as drilling on existing leases within 25 miles of the canyon and would apply to the area over 1,900 feet below sea level.

Babbitt and the state’s geologist, the chief archaeologist for the department, agreed to the ban in private talks on the Chaco Canyon plateau on Wednesday.

Any oil company drilling in the area would be shut down for at least three years, Babbitt said.

There are about 200 active oil wells in the American southwest including about 110 in New Mexico alone, including eight in the Canyon. The Interior Department is eager to produce oil in the state, where federal oil fields including Pecos will shut down in three years.

Before proposing the ban, the Interior Department set aside land near Chaco Canyon and around Piney Point where new exploration may be allowed. However, the site is in the throes of an archaeological study and a state law specifies a five-year lease moratorium on new sites.

The Chaco Canyon plateau is the oldest archaeological site in the United States, perhaps the oldest, with ancient stones dating back to 700BC. The plateau is crisscrossed with settlements and incorporated into the everyday life of the Pueblo people. Archaeologists know the sites would require some sensitive drilling practices to preserve.

Babbitt said the federal government also expects the best and the brightest among the oil industry to support the ban on drilling in the area.

“We will be prepared to give individuals a chance to help us on next steps,” he said.

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