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
 

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Both the shortcomings and strengths of the reclamation process are on display during an afternoon's drive around the San Juan Basin. Conoco-Phillips is the area's largest operator, with 10,000 active wells and leases covering half the acreage in the basin. The company is eager to display its leaner, greener approach. On a hill overlooking the San Juan Valley, reclamation specialist Virgil Chavez surveys a recent reclamation project on an active gas well. A burgeoning swath of blue grama grass covers the site of a former half-acre waste pit, looking for all the world like a hair transplant. When this well was drilled and the waste pit dug, the company saved the top 6 inches of soil, which contains all the nutrients that the plants need to grow. Once the pit was filled in, the workers put it back on top.

"Basically, everything we look at is a snapshot -- a short-term disturbance," Chavez says.

Along the transplant's edge runs a half-moon of tire tracks, cutting through the newly planted grass. John Zent, Conoco-Phillips' project development manager, says those were left by trucks circling too wide when leaving the well. "That's the kind of thing we're trying to avoid," he says.

Shirley McNall is a self-proclaimed "freelance activist" in Aztec, N.M., who has one well on her property but successfully fought off another one, which now stands on BLM land across the road. She commends Conoco-Phillips for its environmental work, but notes that the company, which acquired Burlington Resources last year, faces a big challenge fixing up all its newly acquired wells. Many of them have problems, she says, ranging from erosion to leakage.

An afternoon's worth of wandering through the sun-bleached basin, from private property on Crouch Mesa to federal land near Aztec, brings on a case of the reclamation blues. At least five well sites show no signs of recent TLC -- just two- to three-acre tracts of barren earth, punctuated by juniper-green wellheads, storage tanks and compressors. The reclamation revolution isn't over yet, it seems.

Zent acknowledges that the older wells are "a challenge." But he says that the company, encouraged by the BLM's San Juan Basin reclamation team, is dealing with them even as it drills new wells nearby, taking care of reclamation for both at the same time.

Down in New Mexico's pancake-flat Permian Basin, not far from the Texas border, reclamation is also getting more respect. Local operators -- the Carlsbad, N.M., phone book lists 87 oil and gas-related companies, including 10 oil producers, four oil and gas exploration and development companies, and 31 oilfield service contractors -- have come around to the idea, thanks in large part to a slow, delicate courtship, according to Jim Stovall, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office.

"I think it's the relationships we've built and the change of attitude, and realizing the need to look down the road," Stovall says. "There are some wonderful resources out there, and we need to make sure they're taken care of. We've gotta be just as high or higher on the environmental end as we are on the development side of things."

Still, Stovall, whose office processes about 750 drilling applications each year, acknowledges the challenge of juggling energy development with competing mandates to protect biodiversity and scenic values. The impacts of gas development extend far beyond the well pads themselves, he notes.

"We may reclaim x number of acres, but fragmentation affects many more acres of habitat" for the lesser prairie chicken, sand dune lizard and other species, says Stovall. "It's much more than just those acres disturbed."

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