The BLM stabs at a tired land

Bush's push for oil and gas development touches down on the San Juan Basin

  • map

    Diane Sylvain

AZTEC, N.M. - A cloud of dust rises into the hot high-desert air as a tanker truck grinds past on a dirt road. The sagebrush landscape is honeycombed with such roads, branching off at every turn. It doesn't matter which one you take - they all lead to natural-gas drilling sites.

"Do you see any reseeding here?" asks Tweeti Blancett, a longtime local rancher, waving a hand at a two-acre well site bulldozed out of the scrub. "I don't see any."

The drilling equipment stands out starkly on the flattened earth. A compressor's racket dispels the silence. Nearby sits a waste pit coated with tar; a chemical smell permeates the air.

This is public land in what the Bureau of Land Management terms a "high development area" in northwestern New Mexico, 7,000 square miles where more than 99 percent of the federal oil and gas resources are leased for production.

The San Juan Basin has been an oil and gas hot spot for more than 80 years. There are few people, but it's a crowded place. Since the completion of the basin's first commercial oil well in 1921 outside Aztec, companies have drilled more than 26,000 oil and gas wells - 18,000 of which are still producing. The basin is actually California's largest single source of natural gas.

"They have totally converted millions of acres of public land to a single use," says Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group based in Durango, Colo.

Now the industry that has carved through this landscape wants to dramatically increase drilling in the New Mexico portion of the San Juan Basin, along the Colorado border. In June, the Farmington office of the BLM released a draft environmental impact statement and 20-year resource-management plan, covering approximately 2 million acres of public land and 3 million acres of subsurface mineral estate. Under this new plan, leaseholders could drill at least 9,942 new gas and oil wells in the next 20 years, more than twice as many as under the existing management plan.

The plan has drawn fire from environmentalists and ranchers, who say it will foul the air and further scar the land. It's a struggle being repeated across the Rocky Mountains, as the Bush administration pushes for new gas and oil development in rural counties (HCN, 9/2/02:Backlash).

But in a state marked by severe unemployment, where half the budget goes to schools that rank among the lowest in the nation, the fight will be particularly tough: The oil and gas industry is the state's largest civilian employer, providing 23,000 jobs. It also paid $1.25 billion in royalties last year to New Mexico.

"Without the money from our industry," says Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, "each taxpayer in the state would have to pay $800 in additional taxes just to maintain the schools as they are."

The coming brown cloud

Even with this economic pressure, Pearson and Blancett are leading the charge against the BLM's new management plan. "Normally, ranchers and environmentalists fight each other tooth and claw," laughs Blancett. "Now, we just don't talk about the things we disagree on. We figure if the big issues we do agree on aren't taken care of, the rest won't matter anyhow."

One of those big issues is air quality. The management plan estimates that, over the course of 20 years, the gas-fired compressors and separator units required for the added wells will release 73,565 tons of nitrogen oxide, as well as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulates - the sort of brew that creates Los Angeles smog.

At a public hearing Aug. 26 in Farmington, citizens voiced strong concerns about air pollution. Pearson believes the increased emissions would cause Farmington, with a population of just 41,000, to violate federal ozone standards.

Steve Henke, Farmington field manager with the BLM, says air-quality concerns are "absolutely legitimate" but, to some degree, the BLM's hands are tied. The agency leased most of the public land in the San Juan Basin years ago. "The fundamental decision was made 40 or 50 years ago," he says, "so the question becomes, how do we develop those leases in an environmentally responsible manner?"

The industry, on the other hand, contends the air-quality worries are baseless. The worst air pollution in New Mexico is in the far-off cities of Albuquerque and Las Cruces, says Gallagher, "and we don't produce a barrel of oil or (any) gas in either of those places." He maintains that ozone levels would be well within federal standards, adding that "critics are trying to put fear into people rather than use sound science."

Back on the ground

But air quality isn't the only problem many locals have with the proposal. Impacts to rangeland, water quality and wildlife are big concerns.

The new plan allows for approximately 36,500 of additional acres of surface disturbance and 805 miles of new roads. Already, only 20 percent of the wildlife habitat in the area is more than a quarter-mile from a road, Pearson says; the new project would cut it to 12 percent.

Blancett, who with her husband leases 48,000 acres of federal land for grazing, says she's seen countless examples of poorly fenced waste pits, unreclaimed well pads and pipeline sites, and tanks without berms around them to stop contaminated spills from washing away. Increased drilling will mean more of the same, harming wildlife, livestock and habitat, she believes.

The BLM's Henke and industry spokesman Gallagher say they are working to clean up messy well sites. Partly as a result of pressure from Blancett, the Farmington Field Office recently hired five more inspectors.

Henke admits managing the area is a challenge, but the reality is that the oil and gas industry has been entrenched here for half a century. "This is a very productive gas basin. It's nationally significant," he says. "We're not starting with a clean slate. Certainly, if we were, I think we would do things differently in terms of how we leased and how we developed, but we don't have that option."

When asked to comment on the draft management plan, an attorney with the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division said he was not familiar with it, and local officials in Farmington have yet to issue a statement.

Gail Binkly writes from Cortez, Colorado.

You can contact ...

    • San Juan Citizens Alliance, P.O. Box 2461, Durango, CO 81301, 970/259-3583),
    • Comments on the RMP/EIS should be sent by Sept. 26 and addressed to: RMP Project Manager Farmington Field Office 1235 La Plata Highway, Suite AFarmington, NM 87401.


High Country News Classifieds
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
    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...
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!