Why I fight: The coming gas explosion in the West

by Tweeti Blancett

Here’s what I once believed: that if the President knew about the damage done to our land by the energy industry, the damage would cease.

I once believed that if you could show that industry can extract gas without damaging land right near us -- as it does on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, and on Ted Turner’s Vermijo Ranch -- that those examples would be followed by every company.

Believing that, I went to Washington, D.C., in August 2002, and met with Kathleen Clarke, who runs the Bureau of Land Management; I met with Rebecca Watson, a Montanan high in the Department of Interior; I met with V.A. Stephens, who is with the Council on Environmental Quality; and I met with the New Mexico congressional staffs. I told them all that gas drilling could be done right but that it was being done wrong. I begged them to enforce existing regulations.

I came home to the small town of Aztec, N.M., and waited for change. I’m still waiting. I suppose not everyone can waltz into Washington and get that kind of entree. But I ran George Bush’s 2000 campaign in my part of New Mexico. I ran Sen. Pete Domenici’s campaign in my county in 1996. Our family has been on the land here for six generations and going on three centuries. We graze cattle on 17 square-miles of Bureau of Land Management, state and our private land.

We once ran 600 cows on those 35,000 acres. Today, we can barely keep 100 cows. Grass and shrubs are now roads, drill pads or scars left by pipeline paths. We have trouble keeping our few cows alive because they get run over by trucks servicing wells each day, or they get poisoned when they lap up the sweet anti-freeze leaking out of unfenced compressor engines.

I have not taken this quietly. I have been on a mission for 16 years. In the beginning, I wanted to save the 400-acre farm and the adjacent piece of wild land in northwest New Mexico that I care most about. That’s not much out of 35,000 acres. My family thought I was nuts. My son was a senior in high school, and resisted my attempts to enlist him. My husband said I was wasting my time.

They knew I was going against an industry that sharpened its teeth chewing on little people. They thought industry had the upper hand, legally speaking. But I believed industry had the upper hand because it threatened and intimidated. I once met Rosa Parks. I thought: If that little lady could sit, alone, in the front of a bus filled with hostile passengers, then I could act to protect where I live.

Gradually, I came to see why everyone else thought I was nuts. All of San Juan County in southern New Mexico has been leased for 50 years to gas companies. Our fathers and grandfathers signed these "perpetual" leases long ago, when the gas companies were owned and run by neighbors. The rest of the land is federally managed.

The industry claims its right to underground minerals trumps our rights to the surface. We don’t deny their rights. We just say that we also have rights. Unfortunately for us and our cows and the wildlife, we are on top of unimaginable wealth, in the form of coal-bed methane. Each year, our small, rural and fairly poor county produces $2.4 billion, and most of that money flows right out of here.

My 400 acres sit at the heart of this wealth. Nevertheless, several of us last fall locked the gates to our private land. We have not denied access to those who have leases. But we now control the access. We were tired of being told by the companies that "someone else" had killed the cow, or the deer, or drove across freshly reseeded land. Now we know who is on our land, and when.

It’s perfectly logical and legal to control access to private land, except in gas country. So the companies pulled us into court. This, it turned out, was not a bad thing. We found out that industry doesn’t have the rights its says it has. And when we go to court, we don’t go alone. We bring our rancher friends. We bring our environmental friends -- friends we never dreamed of having. We bring pictures of the surface damage -- pictures that are so bad other states use them to show what happens when you trust industry and the BLM to "do the right thing."

We’ve been in more newspapers than I can count. We’ve been in People magazine. We’ve been on Tom Brokaw’s TV news program. This natural gas boom has become a Western plague. In conservative Wyoming, home to Vice President Dick Cheney, the reaction against coalbed methane helped elected a Democratic governor.

But this isn’t a partisan issue. We had as much trouble under Clinton as we do under Bush. This is a campaign-contribution problem. They give more than we can.

At times it seems hopeless. Then I hear from people facing similar situations in Colorado, in Montana, in Wyoming, in Utah. Many are like us -- conservative, Republican, pro-free enterprise people. Others are environmentalists, or just care about land and animals.

Shortly, there will be a huge natural gas explosion, but it won’t be pipelines or gas wells that blow. The explosion will come from the average Westerner, who is tired of being used by the oil and gas industry, with the help of state and federal officials.

Tweeti Blancett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an essay service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a rancher who has become an activist in Aztec, New Mexico.

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