Who’ll clean up when the party’s over?

Land managers and industry are stepping up efforts to reclaim public lands scraped and drilled for oil and gas. Is it too little, too late?

  • Sherrie Landon of the New Mexico office of the Bureau of Land Management inspects a well site that is being successfully revegetated.

    Paul Pennington
  • Richard Arnold of the New Mexico State University Agricultural Center checks out a stand of grass at a reclaimed gas well near Farmington. According to the BLM, reclamation means returning the land to "a condition equal to or closely approximating that which existed before the land was disturbed." But that does not mean returning the land to its wild, pre-disturbed state. Typically, the BLM directs companies to plant grasses and forbs, including many non-native species, to stabilize soils. It may take decades or longer for native grasses, sagebrush and juniper to re-establish themselves on the disturbed sites.

    NMSU photo by Jane Moorman
  • Well padsand roads dot the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico

    Google Earth

In the shadow of a sandstone outcrop a few miles east of this northwestern New Mexico outpost, a life-and-death struggle is playing out in the hard desert soil.

A few feet from a natural gas well known as Riddle #8S, delicate shoots of alabaster rice grass spring up from a swath of sandy loam. To the casual observer it's just another scraggly patch of bleached-out grass, but to Sherrie Landon, it's a biological triumph.

"This looks good," says Landon, a reclamation specialist with the Bureau of Land Management's Farmington, N.M., field office. "The vegetation is coming back very well."

The same can't be said for the dirt around a nearby older well, Riddle WH 3C. Here, only 50 yards away, the seeds didn't take. The lifeless, eroding hillside stands as a cruel reminder of the challenge of growing anything in the desert.

"Our level of success when it comes to re-vegetating just has to vary," says Landon, a solidly built blonde who likes to spend her weekends hunting oryx, an exotic African antelope introduced to New Mexico. "It's very challenging."

The San Juan Basin is the nation's second-largest natural gas basin. Unfortunately, the West's most productive fossil fuel basins -- the San Juan, the Powder River on the Wyoming/Montana border, Colorado's Piceance and southeastern New Mexico's Permian -- share another distinction: They are some of the harshest and most biologically stubborn environments to reclaim after drilling. If it doesn't rain, or if it rains at the wrong time, a season of work can be wasted.

Part of the challenge of healing this land is strictly biological. But another part is political and financial. As anyone who has flown over or driven through a natural gas hotspot can attest, this boom -- with its expanding networks of roads, well pads, waste ponds and pipeline corridors -- is leaving immense and ever-growing scars on the landscape. It will take as much energy and commitment to erase them as it took to create them. So far, however, reclamation has remained on the back burner, with the BLM, the industry, and even environmentalists putting most of their focus on the drilling boom itself.

But that may be starting to change. In 2005, Congress passed the National Energy Policy Act, which authorized new resources for the BLM to expedite reclamation efforts in energy hotspots. Since then, Landon and her five-member reclamation team have been on the ground ensuring that the industry cleans up as it develops new wells. To a lesser extent, they also oversee the reclamation of older well sites. Landon's team visits hundreds of sites each year -- first to talk over the reclamation plan with the gas company, then to check on the progress of the project, which is almost always carried out and paid for by the companies themselves.

Six other BLM "pilot" reclamation teams have formed under the new law, based in Carlsbad, N.M., Vernal, Utah, Glenwood Springs, Colo., Rawlins, Wyo., Buffalo, Wyo., and Miles City, Mont. Agency officials say the federal government's strengthened commitment to reclamation has fostered a cooperative new attitude in the energy industry. Reclamation has gone from an often-neglected afterthought to part of the standard way of doing business.

"One day these fields will have produced everything they can, and what will be there is the land and the wildlife," says Tony Herrell, deputy director of BLM's New Mexico state office. "So we need to return them to where they were before."

But successfully reclaiming oil and gas fields in the West will take a whole lot more money and personnel than are currently deployed. One observer likens the BLM's efforts to a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. If the federal government wants to avoid the kind of scars that still linger from long-ago mining and logging, it will have to scale up its work, and do so in a hurry.

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