Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the department will extend the public comments period for a controversial oil and gas drilling plan in a part of New Mexico that contains a national park and Native American lands.

The Associated Press reports that the decision was motivated by the corona virus pandemic, which hit local tribes particularly hard by the disease, and that it followed a meeting between Bernhardt and local communities, environmentalists, and archaeologists.

“After spending the pandemic pushing through environmental rollbacks and slashing royalties for oil and gas companies, Secretary Bernhardt is trying to repair his image,” a policy director from the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation and advocacy organization, told the AP. “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,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn added.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the decision on the drilling plans, when made, could determine the future of oil and gas reserves in federal lands around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The public comments period will be extended by 120 days. The delay comes a day after the Bureau of Land Management unexpectedly postponed an oil and gas lease sale that was scheduled for this week without providing an explanation.

“They’re just postponed,” JulieAnn Serrano, Lease Sale Supervisor and Supervisory Land Law Examiner for the Bureau of Land Management’s New Mexico State Office told when asked for a reason for the postponement.

What links the two events is the fact that the lease sale, like the drilling plan for the lands around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, has attracted criticism from environmentalist groups and other stakeholders regarding public comments. In the case of the lease sale, opponents insisted that this be suspended for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of the drilling plan, the criticism focused more on the inability of many Native American communities to take part in remote public comments for lack of technological capabilities.

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