There’s going to be a decision soon about how much of our publicly owned land the Bureau of Land Management will lease to the oil and gas industry on Otero Mesa in New Mexico, but I don’t think I’ll be among those sending public comments.
I'm thinking, instead, about
writing a private letter to Linda Rundell, state director of the
agency, though I don't hold much hope that my measly opinion will
count for much. After all, the BLM has rejected Gov. Bill
Richardson's executive order banning oil and gas drilling on Otero
Mesa and his call for the creation of a 600,000-acre conservation
area to safeguard the fragile Chihuahuan Desert. And he was once
secretary of the Department of Energy for the whole United States.
Another thing that makes me think my opinion won't be
valued is Linda Rundell's attitude toward public involvement. In a
Feb. 11, 2004 article in the Los Angeles Times,
she had this to say after being told that 85 percent of the people
who'd contacted the agency supported strict protection of the
mesa’s grassland: "It's not a vote," she said. "We look at
societal implications — we are required to do that —
but it is not a vote." I think people who send their public
comments to federal agencies know they’re not voting, but
they do expect their opinions to count for something.
Just to make sure agency officials know better than I do about
what's best for Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico, I read the
entire text of their latest "Supplement to Proposed Resource
Management Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement
for Federal Fluid Minerals Leasing and Development in Sierra and
Otero Counties." I felt I was reading propaganda written in
I was shocked to learn that only 6 percent
of the 1.8 million acres managed by BLM in the two counties would
be set aside and free from drilling. Sixty-nine percent would be
"Open with Standard Lease Terms and Conditions," and 24 percent
would be "Open with Controlled Surface Use."
makes laughable Rundell's recent comment that the "BLM has
developed one of the most restrictive plans ever written for
mineral leasing on public lands." She also once said, "We will
protect sensitive natural resources in the two-county area,
including Otero Mesa, while allowing a limited amount of oil and
gas leasing to proceed." It is hard to see how the plan will
further the agency’s mission "to sustain the health,
diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and
enjoyment of present and future generations" unless the focus is
solely on the word "productivity."
Certainly, BLM cannot
claim concern for the health and diversity of this vanishing
grassland and the aplomado falcon that lives there, since drilling
for oil and gas will only hasten their demise. And for what? BLM
itself rated the potential production from the area as "low to
moderate." Linda Rundell told a reporter: "It's really pretty small
Some experts estimate that, even under the
best circumstances, only a two-week supply of gas for U.S.
consumption could be recovered there. Yet under pressure from the
oil and gas industry, BLM has even reneged on its "No Surface
Occupancy" stipulation. BLM's senior petroleum geologist had said
that "exploration and initial development must be accomplished
through drilling of vertical and not horizontal wells." Linda
Rundell said, "Our analysis indicated that the grassland areas
could be protected using a 5 percent maximum disturbance
It's hard to understand how going from "No
Surface Occupancy" to "5 percent maximum surface disturbance"
represents greater protection for the grassland areas.
Perhaps the biggest myth in the new supplement is the requirement
that areas disturbed by drilling must be reclaimed. Anyone who has
ever visited one of these sites — or even seen photos of
drill pads, waste disposal pits and gas fields — knows that
full reclamation is next to impossible. Linda Rundell's assertion
that "reclamation will not be considered successful until ground
cover is showing signs of stable establishment" is nothing more
than the punchline of a bad joke.
It's almost as funny as
having people believe there's any chance their written comments
will have an effect on a federal agency’s decision. The Bush
administration and the Interior Department that runs the Bureau of
Land Management have made it clear that oil and gas exploration
comes first, trumping all other values.
Now that I think
of it, I don't guess I'll be writing a letter to Linda Rundell