Between an oil lease and a hard place

  • The BLM leased oil rights beneath the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness

    Brian Walski photo
  The Bureau of Land Management has a dilemma of its own making in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness of northwest New Mexico. First, the agency is writing a draft environmental impact statement for drilling 13 oil wells and building 5.5 miles of road in a federally protected wilderness. Second, nobody really wants to drill there.

The problem began in 1991, when the agency overlooked the fact that the area might be designated wilderness and sold oil and gas rights in the Bisti. Five years later, Congress protected the area as wilderness. "It was a slip-up," agency manager Joel Farrell told the Albuquerque Journal.

Now, the agency faces few options. Speerex, the oil company that bought the rights, turned down the agency's offer of a mineral exchange and continues legal action against the BLM.

At Farmington and Santa Fe public hearings, a strong majority of people opposed drilling under any circumstances. "(The Bureau of Land Management) got themselves into this mess and they should be able to get themselves out," says Sam Hitt of the Forest Guardians. Hitt says his group will sue if the agency allows drilling.

On the other hand, if the agency doesn't allow drilling, Speerex could win its "takings' suit, which argues that the BLM illegally sold rights that could never be developed. Stephen Speer, the Roswell, N.M., geologist who heads Speerex, complains that court delays have tied up his operation for seven years. But Speer also admits that drilling in a protected wilderness would be absurd.

Speer won't say why he refuses a mineral exchange. Fred Hansen, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, figures there's a simple explanation: A court award could be worth more than the BLM's substitute land.

"Taffeta Elliott

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