New Mexicans take a stand against oil and gas

The fight to keep drillers off Otero Mesacould set the tone for the November election

  • Otero Mesa as seen from Alamo Mountain near the Texas state line

    Bobby Magill

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — When rancher Tweeti Blancett stood before 700 environmentalists at the end of January, she left the crowd speechless. Taking her stand in downtown Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre, this former George W. Bush supporter ordered gas companies to stop trashing the state’s public lands. The crowd, not expecting an ardent advocate of public-lands protection to be a staunch Republican, sat in stunned silence.

After watching oil companies drill her San Juan County, N.M., grazing allotments into uselessness, in 2002 Blancett staged a lockout near Farmington to keep oil company trucks from crossing private property to reach public lands (HCN, 12/9/02: Cowboys fight oil and gas drillers). Now, she’s campaigning to keep coalbed methane drillers out of New Mexico’s Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest (HCN, 3/1/04: Oil and gas drilling could oust elk – and Boy Scouts). But this particular rally was about protecting southern New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, the country’s last remaining tract of Chihuahuan Desert grassland (HCN, 9/10/01: Gas industry gambles on New Mexico Mesa).

After Blancett took her seat, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, stepped to the stage in a surprise appearance. The former secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy signed an executive order onstage, making it state policy to prevent oil and gas companies from drilling Otero Mesa. Richardson’s plan is more than just symbolic: With it, he prevents the state from granting permits for waste pits dug near oil and gas wells on Otero Mesa. At the same time, he directs state agencies to toughen criteria for granting water well permits for drillers and to implement strict protections on wildlife in the area.

Steve Capra, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance campaign coordinator, says he watched people cry as Richardson signed what he considers to be a symbol of hope.

Show me the money

When the Bureau of Land Management issued its final management plan for Otero Mesa in early January, it officially expanded oil and gas production in the area. By opening 105,000 acres, or 5 percent, of the mesa to limited drilling, and keeping the remaining 1.1 million acres relatively unregulated, the agency would allow gas companies to capitalize on an estimated 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas discovered when Roswell, N.M.-based Harvey E. Yates Company, or HEYCO, drilled several test wells on Otero Mesa in 1997.

But Bob Jones, a southern New Mexico rancher, says the oil companies that have already drilled wells on Otero Mesa have left "an awful mess" and threatened archaeological sites and the underlying aquifer. Jones is president of a conservative private-property group, the Paragon Foundation, which is better known for opposing wolf-reintroduction programs and advocating for public-lands ranching than for cooperating with environmentalists.

He points out that the oil and gas companies showed no interest in discussing conservation with ranchers. But the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance did: Last year, former Wilderness Alliance executive director Jim Scarantino approached members of the Paragon Foundation, and people from the two organizations began to unofficially work together to preserve Otero Mesa.

"We know where the (Bush) administration is in this, and they’re trying to open all the Western federal lands for the oil companies to drill," Jones says. "When it comes to the oil companies, you just can’t get anything done with them because they feel like they don’t have to (work with you)."

On March 4, the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands reported that since 2000, oil magnate George Yates, part-owner of HEYCO, has donated $250,000 to the Republican Party. Not only that, National Environmental Strategies (NES), one of Yates’ lobbying firms, pays J. Steven Griles, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, $284,000 each year. According to the report, Griles receives that money as compensation for the value of clients that he sent to NES when he started to work for the federal government. Though Yates told the Associated Press that his campaign contributions, his connection to Griles and his fund-raising assistance to Vice President Dick Cheney had no influence on the BLM’s policy changes, not everyone is buying it.

"Those are crocodile tears," says Capra. "It’s a carefully choreographed answer between the BLM and the oil and gas industry." He also hopes Congress looks into the connections between Griles, Yates and Otero Mesa. "My hope is there will be an investigation into it. The report doesn’t hold a smoking gun."

Election wild card

The report — entitled Cash, Connections and Concessions: The Yates Family, the Bush Administration, and the Selling of Otero Mesa — may add fuel to the backlash against oil and gas drilling in the state, a backlash that could be felt at the polls next November.

"Our part of the world is a throwaway zone," says Blancett. "I think we’ve formed unholy alliances with people we never spoke to, much less worked with."

Like many Western states, New Mexico has traditionally been split between its conservative rural residents and Democratic-voting Hispanics and city-dwellers. But while Republican ranchers like Blancett are fed up with what they call Bush’s pro-drilling mania, State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons and other prominent Republicans statewide are equally miffed at Gov. Bill Richardson’s policies on Otero Mesa, and they have vowed to fight back.

Next November, voters will be deciding a number of congressional seats, including that of pro-gas development Rep. Steve Pearce, R, in the southern part of the state, and northern New Mexico’s Rep. Tom Udall, D. In the oil-rich San Juan Basin, conservative San Juan County District Attorney Greg Tucker is challenging the environmentally friendly Udall.

Democrats hold a large majority in New Mexico, but the presidential race next fall is likely to be close: In 2000, Al Gore won the state by the narrowest margin of any state in the country. "We expect the 2004 election to be similar; it’s going to come down to a handful of votes," says Maggie Toulouse of the League of Conservation Voters. "We firmly believe New Mexico’s five electoral votes are going to decide this election."

The author writes from Taos, New Mexico.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, 505-843-8696

Oil and Gas Accountability Project, 970-259-3353

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, 202-224-6621

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, 202-225-2365

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