I had long stopped counting by the time I reached Blancett’s motel in Aztec. Blancett, an attractive, trim blonde in her early 60s with a million-dollar smile and an eternally harried manner, ushered me into her office, sweeping aside the papers from her various lawsuits against the BLM and the oil and gas producers. She introduced me to her husband, Linn, who leaned against the doorway in a rancher’s hat, boots and jeans. On a map, they showed me the location of my wells. I receive royalties from about 30 of the 600 that sit on her ranch. "Every single one is on my permit," she said.
Although many of the wells have been there since the 1950s, Tweeti told me that the impact on the range land had been limited until the coalbed methane boom of the 1990s. Although the total number of wells in the basin as a whole has not climbed precipitously — older wells go out of production as new wells get drilled — the Blancetts’ grazing land sits in the heart of the "Fairway," the most productive coalbed methane area in the region, and producers, spurred by the recent gas price spike, have drilled 200 new wells there in the last two years alone. There are now 1,000 miles of roads on the land. Two years ago, the Blancetts sold livestock rather than continue to struggle with the producers. "They could have drilled responsibly initially, but now the concentration is too great," Tweeti explained. "This is a sacrifice area."
I can’t take credit for all of the wells on the Blancetts’ ranch, but I knew that it was the existence of those wells, mine included, that had driven her out of the ranching business and into a state of perpetual conflict. I told her I was sorry that my wells had caused them so many problems. She looked at me like I was nuts. "We have royalties, too," she told me. They lay across the Animas River, on somebody else’s land. "That’s how we’re able to fight the oil and gas companies. You don’t see me giving my royalties back."
Unlike me, of course, Tweeti Blancett has never claimed to be an environmentalist. Until the methane feeding frenzy of recent years made the oil companies a bigger adversary, she considered environmentalists among her biggest antagonists. "They have been some of the strongest lobbyists to get rid of grazing on federal land," she said. But in 2000, she contacted an environmental group in Durango for help with her gas-well problem and soon found herself something of a media darling, a veteran of "plucky-rancher-gone-green" spreads in People Magazine and Vanity Fair, her personal stand for property rights — a Republican rancher’s bedrock — now enlisted in the national battle over fossil fuels. Still, she describes her relationship with environmentalists as an "unholy alliance" based on mutual need — they provide her with allies, expertise and exposure. And the environmentalists? "We bring them standing," she said.
I couldn’t help but feel that Blancett’s royalties brought me some degree of standing, too. We both have deep roots on, and under, the ground here in New Mexico. Her family has been running cattle since the 1870s; my great-grandfather, who arrived in the state around the same time, owned a huge sheep ranch near Santa Rosa. Although my father jokes that our family patriarch was a pioneer in environmental sensitivity — "he had his sheepherders go after the sheep and pick up the turds" — we all know the environmental costs of large-scale grazing in the West, including erosion, sedimentation, invasive species. In the South, family guilt often points back to slavery. If your roots lie in the West, it seems, there’s a good chance your forebears have had a hand in desecrating the land. Blancett, however, didn’t seem to feel that same burden of history: "What your people did back when has no bearing on who you are today."
Really? I am a freelance writer, and although most of the time I am able to cover my expenses, there are slow times when I count on the money that comes from the wells on Tweeti Blancett’s ranch to make ends meet. I couldn’t support myself on the royalties alone — they fluctuate with gas prices, ranging from $400 to $3,000 per month. Without that monthly stipend from the fossil-fuel industry, however, I would probably have had to find another career.
Shortly before I traveled to visit the Blancetts, I made a trip to my family’s own homestead in northeastern New Mexico — a ranch that my great-grandfather built in the eastern foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, where there is, fortunately, little of value underneath the ground. Like me, many of my family members consider themselves green, and like me, many of them receive royalties from the gas wells on Blancett’s land. Did other family members feel any similar remorse? Should we sell our interest, knowing it will do nothing to clean up the Blancetts’ land?
I asked my Uncle Dick, an architect who specializes in passive solar design. "The problem is not royalty owners but government policies that subsidize production rather than encouraging conservation," he said. "I will have much more impact if I use that money to renovate my house to be more energy efficient. All of these concepts would assuage my guilt, if I had any, which I don’t."
I asked my father, who helped draft the 1970 Clean Air Act amendments. "I think you should look at it this way. If they mine and burn coal instead of your gas, it would be even worse, so you’re actually doing the environment a favor," he said, tongue only partly in cheek.
I asked my brother, a longtime environmental organizer, if he thought we should sell. "Selling doesn’t absolve us morally," he said, "but it might be a good economic decision right now."
Turning to less sarcastic sources, I called Jerry Simmons, executive director of the National Association of Royalty Owners, to ask if there is anything I, as a royalty owner, can do to exercise leverage over the production practices of the gas companies. He explained that unless my grandparents signed some sort of environmental stipulation when they first sold the leases, I have no say-so at all, as long as those leases are still in production. Some landowners have recently begun inserting "environmental clauses" into their lease agreements, requiring certain surface protections and accountability guarantees, but back in the ’50s, when my grandparents signed off, there were no such things. "There is no renegotiation," Simmons told me. "You’re living under the terms of the original lease signed, going back to when we didn’t know an awful lot that we know today. There’s nothing you can do."