Why I won't tell the BLM what I think about Otero Mesa

  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 bureaucratese.

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."

The plan 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 potatoes."

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 stipulation."

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 after all.

Robert Rowley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.