Confessions of a Methane Floozy

Faustian bargains in the gas fields of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin

  • Who's to blame for environmental damage from coalbed methane drilling? Energy companies? Check. Royalty owners? Check. Consumers? Well, um... check.

    Joel Sartore/
  • Tweeti Blancett and her granddaughter, Paige, visit a grave in Bloomfield, New Mexico, where a gas refinery looms just beyond the cemetery. Bloomfield lies in the heart of the booming San Juan Basin, home to 20,000 active coalbed methane wells

    Joel Sartore/
  • Linn and Tweeti Blancett herd cattle around a well pad on land they lease from the BLM for grazing near Aztec, New Mexico. Pollution and runoff from coalbed methane wells have contaiminated their water wells and forced them to sell all but a few of their cattle

    Joel Sartore/
  • A well pad is fed by a tangle of roads that cut through the pinon and juniper in northwestern New Mexico, east of Bloomfield

    Adriel Heisey

First, let me say that I use compact fluorescent bulbs. I recycle. I live in Boulder, disdain SUVs and run errands on my bicycle. I do not need convincing about the "inconvenient truths" of climate change, airborne pollutants or habitat loss. I’m fully on board.

But I also own a gas well. To be more accurate, I own royalty interest in oil and gas leases in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. I inherited this ironic state of affairs from my grandmother, who, on the urging of an Albuquerque acquaintance, purchased a batch of federal mineral leases in 1948. There were untold reserves of natural gas underneath the remote, windswept mesas of northwestern New Mexico, and a spur to the El Paso Natural Gas Co. pipeline was being built to transport that methane to the California market. My grandmother had no plans to drill, so she resold the leases to an energy company, retaining a 1 percent overriding royalty interest.

When she died in 1991, she left that interest to my two uncles, my aunt and my father, and he in turn gave his royalty interest to my brother and me. Because the area covered by the leases lay in slow-flowing "tight sand" formations, the wells drilled on our lease sites produced only negligible income until the late 1980s, when energy companies, spurred first by a lucrative tax credit and then by higher natural gas prices, began to extract coalbed methane gas. Since then, more than 6,000 wells have been drilled in the area, which now hosts nearly 20,000 active wells and expects 12,500 more in the next 20 years.

Anyone who follows the news in the West has heard about the environmental and social costs of the coalbed gas boom: Roads, pipelines and drilling pads tear apart fragile high desert; the extraction process brings to the surface "produced water" laden with salt and pollutants; leaks and spills threaten local wildlife and livestock; and the wells, rigs and service trucks contribute to ozone levels that at times resemble those found in large cities. Because most Western farmers and ranchers hold only surface rights to their land — the mineral rights are retained and auctioned off periodically by the federal government — the gas boom has transformed many rural homesteads into loud, unsightly manufacturing zones.

I had no idea of the controversy surrounding natural gas extraction until 2002, when I learned that a rancher’s wife named Tweeti Blancett had locked the gate to her ranch to protest the practices of the energy companies that operated on her family’s grazing land. While there had been wells on the Blancetts’ 32,000-acre ranch — 95 percent of it is federal land, on which the family holds an exclusive grazing permit — for 50 years, the coalbed drilling spree of the last 15 has threatened the very existence of her family’s business. Unsecured holding ponds and leaking, polluted water poisoned their cows, and the tangle of roads and pipelines on her ranch killed forage grass and spread noxious weeds. Blancett, who had served as a local campaign coordinator for George Bush in the 2000 presidential election, soon became an icon of the struggle between the locals and the energy companies — a lifelong Republican transformed by the drilling rigs into an outspoken opponent of the Bush administration’s energy policies.

When I heard about Tweeti Blancett, I tracked down a list of my leases and called the Bureau of Land Management to figure out where they were located. The woman I spoke to told me exactly how to get there. I would take a road until I arrived at a locked gate. A locked gate? "A locked gate." My leases, it turns out, are located on Tweeti Blancett’s ranch, on BLM land where her family’s cows have grazed for a century. The "clean" natural gas that funds my monthly royalty checks, then, also destroys family homesteads and degrades Western watersheds.

So I am an environmentalist-turned-polluter; and Tweeti Blancett is a wise-use Republican-turned-environmentalist. Both of our conversions are unexpected and ironic, random by-products of the cozy relationship between humans and natural resources in the American West.

This summer I decided to go see my wells. I sent Blancett an e-mail, and she invited me to visit. I drove across the Sangre de Cristos and wound through Chama and the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. Shortly after starting my descent into the piñon-and-juniper-dotted mesas of the San Juan Basin, I saw my first gas well. It was fairly inconspicuous, a few green pipes reaching out of the graveled ground, a storage tank, a compressor and a few miscellaneous green-painted structures. It didn’t strike me as terribly offensive. The second well I saw had similar pipes, tanks, pumps and machinery. A few hundred feet down the road, I saw another well. Then another.

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