Gas industry gambles on New Mexico mesa

Federal plan seeks balance in rare desert grasslands

  • WELLING UP? Open Otero seen as a place to drill

    Stephen Capra photo, New Mexico WildernessAlliance
  • Otero Mesa

    Diane Sylvain

OTERO COUNTY, N.M. - Looking out across the rolling hills of blue and black grama grasses that surround his southeastern New Mexico ranch, Charlie Lee can spot a car coming from miles away by the cloud of dust it kicks up. Smack-dab between Carlsbad and Las Cruces, and surrounded by a sea of Bureau of Land Management grazing lands, Lee's Hat Ranch is 70 miles from the nearest city and so off the beaten path that even the U.S. mail doesn't make the trek.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything," says Charlie Lee of his remote ranch life. A New Mexico senator in the 1980s, Lee has had plenty of opportunities to leave his home on Otero Mesa, but he has chosen, time and again, to stay. "I like the weather and I like the solitude."

Now, it looks as if Lee's quiet existence could become a thing of the past. In 1997, the Roswell-based Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO) discovered an estimated 1 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas under the surface of Otero Mesa, enough to supply one-twentieth of what the U.S. consumes in a year. With over 100 new lease applications from gas companies waiting for review, the local BLM office is hustling to develop new management regulations that will balance natural resource extraction with sound habitat protection.

But favorable market conditions and a friendly administration in Washington make protecting this seemingly unremarkable stretch of grassland in the Chihuahuan desert a challenge. In a draft plan released in October, the BLM selected a preferred alternative that leaves 68 percent of the mesa open to leasing, pleasing neither gas companies nor environmentalists.

While Otero Mesa may not have the visual grandeur of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front or Wyoming's Red Desert, environmentalists are nonetheless promising a fight. They see Otero Mesa as an early test of the Bush administration's resolve to open undeveloped and biologically important public lands to oil and gas development.

"It's not Yosemite Valley, and we're not going to get the nation going berserk to save it ... but it's one of the healthiest environments in the state," says Stephen Capra, media coordinator for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

Riding the energy rollercoaster

Charlie Lee, who has lived on the mesa since 1957, is surprised by the recent hubbub. After watching most of the 10-15 wells drilled on the mesa in the last 30 years come up dry, he figured the area's oil and gas potential was low.

Energy experts say market forces have a lot to do with the current push to drill Otero Mesa. For the past decade, with prices stuck at one to two dollars for 1,000 cubic-feet of natural gas, companies haven't had an economic incentive to do wildcat exploration in new areas, says Ken Leonard of the American Petroleum Institute. But in January, the price jumped to $11. Even though prices are now down to approximately $3 per thousand cubic feet, Leonard says there is still enough economic incentive to gamble on places like Otero Mesa.

"It would be foolhardy to ignore large deposits of gas or oil that can be developed at a time when our demand is growing," says Leonard. He cites the Department of Energy's projection that U.S. natural gas consumption will increase 45 percent in the next 15 years.

But biologists say drilling will undermine Otero Mesa's ecological value. Lyle Lewis, endangered species chief for the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife, says the mesa is one of New Mexico's last three expanses of relatively unfragmented Chihuahuan desert grassland. That may sound like a mouthful, but for the last native herd of pronghorn antelope in the state, and for grassland-dependent species like endangered black-tailed prairie dogs and northern aplomado falcons, good habitat is becoming harder to find, Lewis says.

Roads, power lines, gas lines, well pads and increased traffic have fragmented other desert grasslands and led to declines in wildlife populations, says Steve West, director of the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance. West notes that in other areas where oil and gas development is widespread, invertebrate populations - the base of the grassland food chain - have crashed. That means less food for numerous animals.

But the BLM says its preferred alternative guards against fragmentation in areas of prime grassland habitat through a "no surface occupancy" stipulation. The stipulation, which covers 42 percent of the 280,000 acres of federal land on Otero Mesa, will limit development to within 150 meters of existing roads. This leaves 32 percent of the mesa entirely closed to drilling, says Tom Phillips, land-use planner for the local BLM. "There are so few roads out here, and we're trying to keep it that way," says Phillips.

"Our intent is to provide for both oil and gas development and natural resource protection," says Amy Leuders, BLM's Las Cruces field office manager. As for the mesa's remaining 164,000 acres of federal land, they will be designated as "open with stipulations," a provision that Leuders says will allow the BLM to responsibly manage oil and gas development.

Full speed ahead

Steve Yates, vice president of the company that drilled the test well, thinks the BLM's plan unfairly favors environmentalists. "Are we going to say we don't want to lose any plant or animal species? If it happens, nature did it, not man," says Yates when asked about possible impacts of oil and gas development on rare and endangered species. Yates believes the preferred alternatives' restrictions are too prohibitive. "This is non-park, non-monument, non-forest, non-wilderness, non-area of critical environmental concern," says Yates.

Otero County Commissioner Michael Nivison says the BLM's plan will unnecessarily limit gas development in a county that is 84 percent federal land, robbing the county of substantial revenue from the taxes, fees and rents that gas development would provide.

"We strongly support the development under existing laws and regulations," says Jim Hughes, legislative assistant for Congressman Joe Skeen, R-N.M. Hughes thinks the BLM's new "unreasonable regulations" will make drilling on Otero Mesa economically infeasible.

With increasing pressure from Interior Secretary Gale Norton to expedite oil and gas permits and re-evaluate current restrictions, it's possible that the oil and gas industry will have its way. Environmentalists think the BLM's final plan, to be released later this fall, may end up being less restrictive than the draft preferred alternative. "The question on the table is whether the BLM's proposal, which is modest in comparison to what they could do, will survive scrutiny from the Bush administration," says Pam Eaton, Four Corners regional director for The Wilderness Society.

As for Charlie Lee, he thinks the county, and the country, need the gas under Otero Mesa. But he worries about drilling's impact on water quality and abundance, and he wonders what drilling will mean for his son and grandson, who he hopes will enjoy the solitude and quality of life that he's had on Otero Mesa. Says Lee, "It will change our lifestyle, and it probably won't be for the better."

Laurel Jones is a High Country News intern.


  • Steve West, Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, 505/885-3636;
  • Tom Phillips, Bureau of Land Management, 505/525-4377;
  • Steve Yates, Harvey E. Yates Co., 505/623-6601.
High Country News Classifieds
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!