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
 

AZTEC, NEW MEXICO
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $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...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    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...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    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....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    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....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    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...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    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...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    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...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    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...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    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...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    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...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    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,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    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,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    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,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    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
    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...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.