AZTEC, N.M. - A cloud of dust rises into the hot high-desert air as a tanker truck grinds past on a dirt road. The sagebrush landscape is honeycombed with such roads, branching off at every turn. It doesn't matter which one you take - they all lead to natural-gas drilling sites.
"Do you see any reseeding here?" asks Tweeti Blancett, a longtime local rancher, waving a hand at a two-acre well site bulldozed out of the scrub. "I don't see any."
The drilling equipment stands out starkly on the flattened earth. A compressor's racket dispels the silence. Nearby sits a waste pit coated with tar; a chemical smell permeates the air.
This is public land in what the Bureau of Land Management terms a "high development area" in northwestern New Mexico, 7,000 square miles where more than 99 percent of the federal oil and gas resources are leased for production.
The San Juan Basin has been an oil and gas hot spot for more than 80 years. There are few people, but it's a crowded place. Since the completion of the basin's first commercial oil well in 1921 outside Aztec, companies have drilled more than 26,000 oil and gas wells - 18,000 of which are still producing. The basin is actually California's largest single source of natural gas.
"They have totally converted millions of acres of public land to a single use," says Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group based in Durango, Colo.
Now the industry that has carved through this landscape wants to dramatically increase drilling in the New Mexico portion of the San Juan Basin, along the Colorado border. In June, the Farmington office of the BLM released a draft environmental impact statement and 20-year resource-management plan, covering approximately 2 million acres of public land and 3 million acres of subsurface mineral estate. Under this new plan, leaseholders could drill at least 9,942 new gas and oil wells in the next 20 years, more than twice as many as under the existing management plan.
The plan has drawn fire from environmentalists and ranchers, who say it will foul the air and further scar the land. It's a struggle being repeated across the Rocky Mountains, as the Bush administration pushes for new gas and oil development in rural counties (HCN, 9/2/02:Backlash).
But in a state marked by severe unemployment, where half the budget goes to schools that rank among the lowest in the nation, the fight will be particularly tough: The oil and gas industry is the state's largest civilian employer, providing 23,000 jobs. It also paid $1.25 billion in royalties last year to New Mexico.
"Without the money from our industry," says Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, "each taxpayer in the state would have to pay $800 in additional taxes just to maintain the schools as they are."
The coming brown cloud
Even with this economic pressure, Pearson and Blancett are leading the charge against the BLM's new management plan. "Normally, ranchers and environmentalists fight each other tooth and claw," laughs Blancett. "Now, we just don't talk about the things we disagree on. We figure if the big issues we do agree on aren't taken care of, the rest won't matter anyhow."
One of those big issues is air quality. The management plan estimates that, over the course of 20 years, the gas-fired compressors and separator units required for the added wells will release 73,565 tons of nitrogen oxide, as well as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulates - the sort of brew that creates Los Angeles smog.
At a public hearing Aug. 26 in Farmington, citizens voiced strong concerns about air pollution. Pearson believes the increased emissions would cause Farmington, with a population of just 41,000, to violate federal ozone standards.
Steve Henke, Farmington field manager with the BLM, says air-quality concerns are "absolutely legitimate" but, to some degree, the BLM's hands are tied. The agency leased most of the public land in the San Juan Basin years ago. "The fundamental decision was made 40 or 50 years ago," he says, "so the question becomes, how do we develop those leases in an environmentally responsible manner?"
The industry, on the other hand, contends the air-quality worries are baseless. The worst air pollution in New Mexico is in the far-off cities of Albuquerque and Las Cruces, says Gallagher, "and we don't produce a barrel of oil or (any) gas in either of those places." He maintains that ozone levels would be well within federal standards, adding that "critics are trying to put fear into people rather than use sound science."
Back on the ground
But air quality isn't the only problem many locals have with the proposal. Impacts to rangeland, water quality and wildlife are big concerns.
The new plan allows for approximately 36,500 of additional acres of surface disturbance and 805 miles of new roads. Already, only 20 percent of the wildlife habitat in the area is more than a quarter-mile from a road, Pearson says; the new project would cut it to 12 percent.
Blancett, who with her husband leases 48,000 acres of federal land for grazing, says she's seen countless examples of poorly fenced waste pits, unreclaimed well pads and pipeline sites, and tanks without berms around them to stop contaminated spills from washing away. Increased drilling will mean more of the same, harming wildlife, livestock and habitat, she believes.
The BLM's Henke and industry spokesman Gallagher say they are working to clean up messy well sites. Partly as a result of pressure from Blancett, the Farmington Field Office recently hired five more inspectors.
Henke admits managing the area is a challenge, but the reality is that the oil and gas industry has been entrenched here for half a century. "This is a very productive gas basin. It's nationally significant," he says. "We're not starting with a clean slate. Certainly, if we were, I think we would do things differently in terms of how we leased and how we developed, but we don't have that option."
When asked to comment on the draft management plan, an attorney with the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division said he was not familiar with it, and local officials in Farmington have yet to issue a statement.
Gail Binkly writes from Cortez, Colorado.
You can contact ...
- San Juan Citizens Alliance, P.O. Box 2461, Durango, CO 81301, 970/259-3583), www.sanjuancitizens.org.
- Comments on the RMP/EIS should be sent by Sept. 26 and addressed to: RMP Project Manager Farmington Field Office 1235 La Plata Highway, Suite AFarmington, NM 87401.