Whose rules rule on Otero Mesa?

  • Oil leaks from a drill site in southeast New Mexico

    Stephen Capra, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance
  • Otero Mesa

    Diane Sylvain
  • Matt Wuerker
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Drilling Could Wake a Sleeping Giant."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, knows who his friends are. In 2003, speaking before the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, he told the assembled governors and industry bigwigs that they built his state’s budget surplus. And since then, New Mexico’s coffers have continued to fill: Last year, the State Land Office collected a record $32.7 million in lease sales and $236.3 million in royalties from oil and gas companies alone (HCN, 6/21/04: Oil money rules in the West's mini-Middle East).

But that cash can come with controversy. Seven years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management closed Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico to drilling and began updating its management plan. While the agency suspended existing oil and gas leases, an alliance of environmentalists, ranchers and property-rights advocates sought to keep the mesa off-limits to development (HCN, 3/29/04: New Mexicans take a stand against oil and gas).

And it was in that dusty stretch of desert that Richardson drew a line, and tried to halt development on federal property that oil and gas companies are itching to explore. Now, the state is locked in a fight with the federal government over the fate of 2.1 million acres of Chihuahuan desert — and over who writes the rules for oil and gas development on public lands.

"We’re working for a balance for the future," says Joanna Prukop, Cabinet Secretary of the state’s energy, mineral and natural resources department. "We believe in responsible oil and gas development, but (the governor) has to consider all the resources in the area."

Since entering office in 2003, Richardson has worked hard to curb development on Otero. When the BLM released its final plan to allow about 35 gas wells and 70 oil wells on the mesa, Richardson ordered the state’s Oil Conservation Division to prohibit the use of wastewater pits and to restrict the re-injection of polluted water into the ground. He also ordered the state engineer’s office to strictly regulate groundwater pumping permits, and the state’s natural resources agencies to implement "special protections" for plants and wildlife.

Richardson also began a "consistency review" of the BLM’s plan. Under federal law, the BLM must balance state and national interests; as the state’s chief executive, the governor determines if the federal plan is consistent with state laws.

Released in March 2004, his review found that the federal plan violated many state laws, including New Mexico’s Wildlife Conservation Act and the state water plan. According to Richardson, the BLM also circumvented the National Environmental Policy Act by changing its "preferred alternative" between the draft and final plans without public comment. Prukop says the BLM has no idea how the proposed development will affect everything from groundwater to bighorn sheep: "It’s dazzling to go through the different sections (of the BLM’s plan) and to read the number of times they say they didn’t have enough information or didn’t have the time and the money to do a study."

The governor proposed putting 1.5 million acres off-limits to drilling altogether or under strong protections, and setting aside 640,000 acres as a national conservation area. When the BLM rejected those recommendations, Richardson shot back with an appeal, writing that "BLM has primarily focused on how its (plan) complies with its own policies … . The BLM has an affirmative obligation to resolve inconsistencies with state interests and to adopt my recommendations."

But the federal government has been equally steadfast, and in January, the BLM opened all but 124,000 acres of Otero to energy development. According to the decision, the governor’s recommendations are "not fully consistent" with President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 executive orders directing agencies to expedite energy-related projects on public lands. Richardson’s plan was also inconsistent with the BLM "fluid mineral leasing" policy, revised in May 2001, which calls for the use of "the least restrictive stipulation that effectively accomplishes the resource management objectives."

State BLM director Linda Rundell calls the agency’s Otero decision "the most restrictive that has ever come out with respect to oil and gas exploration and development on public lands." Normally, energy companies nominate lands to lease; on Otero, the agency will decide which parcels are available. "We’re going to control what happens," she says. "If they come up with a dry hole, we’ll limit leasing. If it’s not a dry hole, there will be more interest and we’ll be more careful." But between the "notoriety of the place" and the BLM’s new stipulations and reclamation standards, Rundell jokes that industry representatives have said "there’s no way we’re going to go out there." Drilling within the 150,000 acres already leased is expected to begin soon, and new leases will go up for sale this year.

The state, meanwhile, is preparing to haul the BLM into court, and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is rallying a national campaign to protect the mesa. "This is not a fight we’re going to walk away from," says Stephen Capra, the group’s director. "And the strongest tool in our toolbox is the governor of this state, and the will of the vast majority of New Mexicans."

The author is HCN assistant editor.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

CONTACTS:

The BLM’s Otero Mesa documents
www.nm.blm.gov/lcfo/white_sands_rmpa_eis/white_sands_rmpa_eis.html

State of New Mexico’s Otero Mesa website
www.emnrd.state.nm.us/ofs/OFSNew/OteroMesa.htm

Gov. Richardson’s plan for Otero Mesa
www.emnrd.state.nm.us/ofs/OFSNew/GovsPlanforOteroMesa.pdf

BLM’s National Energy Office Tasks
www.blm.gov/energy/tasks.htm

The following is the text of letter from BLM Director Kathleen Clarke to Governor Bill Richardson responding to the Governor's appeal of the consistency review.
www.blm.gov/nhp/spotlight/otero_mesa_decision/otero_mesa_letter.pdf

Environmental Working Group’s webpage on Otero Mesa and oil and gas leases
www.ewg.org/oil_and_gas/part7.php

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    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...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    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...