Grasslands, Gas and Government
By Nathan Newcomer
Vast desert grasslands, wilderness characteristics, abundant wildlife and a fresh water aquifer are colliding with the Bush-Cheney energy policy in New Mexico’s Otero Mesa. A debate that has been on going since 1997, when Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO) first found natural gas in Otero Mesa, has pitted ranchers, hunters, conservationists, and State authorities against the oil industry and Bush administration policies.
Nestled in south-central New Mexico, Otero Mesa stretches over 1.2 million acres, or roughly the same size as the State of Delaware. It is home to over 1,000 native wildlife species, including black-tailed prairie dogs, desert mule deer, mountain lions, golden and bald eagles, over 250 species of songbirds, and boasts the state’s healthiest and only genetically pure herd of pronghorn antelope. Furthermore, there is evidence that the Salt Basin aquifer, which originates in Otero Mesa and travels south into Texas, is the largest untapped fresh water resource remaining in New Mexico.
By contrast, the oil industry claims that the area holds a vast reservoir of natural gas, though the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates the area’s energy potential at low to moderate (RMPA/EIS for Sierra and Otero Counties). Though there is a discrepancy in just how much oil and gas is under Otero Mesa, both industry and the BLM agree that oil and gas drilling can occur in an environmentally sound manner. In fact, the BLM contends that its proposal for the area is “the most restrictive fluid minerals plan ever developed,” as stated by Gale Norton, the former Secretary of the Department of Interior.
Prior to the Bush administration taking office, the BLM prepared and issued in November 2000, a draft land use management plan that called for opening up nearly 779,000 acres of Otero Mesa, while placing stringent restrictions on development in the fragile desert grasslands. Representatives of the oil and gas industry strongly objected to the draft plan, citing that the plan was too restrictive, because it forced industry to use directional drilling practices for exploration. Directional drilling, by many standards, causes few impacts when producing energy resources, in that only a few wells are needed in order to successfully drill. However, industry became disingenuous once they complained about the directional drilling stipulations, citing that the resource under Otero Mesa is not expected to be prolific enough to be able to use this practice. If the resource is not expected to be “prolific,” then the question of “why are we even having this debate” comes squarely into play. Nevertheless, industry’s persistence paid off with the new Bush administration, for in January 2004, the BLM altered its plan and in releasing its final proposal, authorized opening over a million acres of Otero Mesa to oil and gas development.
During the initial planning stages of the draft plan for Otero Mesa, the vast majority of public comments were in favor of the most restrictive protections for the area. Likewise, between the issuance of the draft and the final proposal, there has been overwhelming public support for protecting Otero Mesa, including from the State of New Mexico. In January 2004, Governor Bill Richardson signed an Executive Order directing all state agencies to “provide support for the utmost protection of the Otero Mesa grasslands as a matter of State policy.” The governor went on to further say in his Consistency Review that the BLM’s plan for Otero Mesa “fails to even attempt to acknowledge the Chihuahuan Desert…as an important part of a larger ecoregion; and proposes only a few ad-hoc protections at small, isolated sites.” Prior to the approval of a proposed resource management plan, 43 C.F.R. 1610.3-2 requires that the BLM State Director submit the proposed plan for review to the Governor to identify any parts of the management plan that are “inconsistent with state or local plans, policies, or programs and provide written recommendations for changes to the plan.” Governor Richardson submitted his Consistency Review for Otero Mesa, and found six major problems with the BLM’s proposal, ranging from habitat degradation to watershed vulnerability. Furthermore, the Governor offered a balanced alternative that would set aside more than 600,000 acres of Otero Mesa as a National Conservation Area, while still allowing room for some responsible development. The net result was a letter from the State BLM Director dismissing the Governor’s review, without allowing additional public comment to be submitted. After exhausting every avenue to achieve consensus, the State of New Mexico had no other option than to file a lawsuit against the BLM, and on April 22, 2005, did just that.
More than a year later, on September 27, 2006, the US District Court for the State of New Mexico recognized the importance of protecting Otero Mesa. The court’s decision validated arguments made by the State of New Mexico and conservation groups that the BLM must thoroughly analyze the impacts of oil and gas development prior to leasing. However, the Coalition for Otero Mesa will appeal the court’s decision because its requirement for thorough environmental analysis is piecemeal—applying to individual parcels up for lease—rather than landscape-wide. Furthermore, the court’s decision relies heavily on the hope that the BLM will do the right thing and protect Otero Mesa. But as shown in a recent report issued by the Coalition for Otero Mesa Coalition, Hollow Promises in Our Land of Enchantment: Why the Bureau of Land Management Can’t Be Trusted to Protect Otero Mesa, the BLM’s track record suggests otherwise. You can read the full report at www.oteromesa.org.
In a statement, Governor. Bill Richardson, said: “Make no mistake; we will continue to fight to protect Otero Mesa.” Before proceeding, though, he said he would confer with Attorney General Patricia Madrid on whether to continue to challenge the BLM in court or “to fight to protect Otero Mesa through other avenues.”
Since the filing of the State’s lawsuit, former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton received in excess of 50,000 letters, facsimiles, and/or emails from people throughout the United States, regarding the protection of Otero Mesa from oil and gas development. These letters of support back the State of New Mexico and Governor Richardson’s position that the most fragile and sensitive areas of Otero Mesa be protected for present and future generations to enjoy.
It is a well-known fact that America heavily relies on oil and gas resources to heat our homes, drive our cars, and even make products like plastic milk cartons. However, it is not widely known that the United States possesses only 3% of the world’s total oil reserves (reserves meaning a resource still under ground that has yet to be produced), as stated by the governmental agency Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA also attests that approximately 60% of America’s oil is imported from foreign countries, including many Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia (www.eia.gov). With this equation in mind, it soon becomes apparent that the United States can never drill its way to energy independence, no matter how many holes we drive into the ground. Yet, the Bush administration has made domestic oil and gas production one of its top priorities during the past six years, including targeting National Monuments, National Forests and other public lands, mainly in the West, for oil and gas development.
The debate over whether to drill in New Mexico’s Otero Mesa has reached a point where local authorities, and the citizens of the State have made clear that they want to see this natural treasure protected. Yet, the powers in Washington, D.C. have consistently ignored these wishes, and continued to move ahead with an unbalanced plan that could irrevocably decimate this wild desert grassland and its fresh water resource. After a thorough analysis and understanding of the agencies plan, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal for drilling in Otero Mesa is absolutely erroneous, consequently shortsighted, and heavily influenced by the Bush Administration’s perpetual lust for oil and gas resources. This type of reckless policy is completely out-of-touch with New Mexico’s quality of life and extreme measures must be taken to stop it.
One major problem with the BLM’s proposed plan for Otero Mesa, is their claim that the area can be drilled in an environmentally sound manner, and that restoration practices can and will ensure that the area’s wildlife continues to thrive. The large array of wildlife that Otero Mesa is able to nourish is due in large part to the expansive black grama grasslands. Grassland expert, Professor Walter G. Whitford notes that the soils, which support the black grama grasses, are remarkably shallow and as a result are particularly sensitive to any type of activity that would alter its composition. Whitford also points out that introducing oil and gas development in Otero Mesa would require hundreds of miles of new roads, pipelines, well pads, and waste pits, all of which would act as extremely large fetches for wind and water erosion. In addition, the cumulative impacts of development would cause “a greater risk of degradation and fragmentation of Otero Mesa.” Yet, with these facts affirmed, the BLM, led by State Director Linda Rundell, still continues to claim that oil and gas development in Otero Mesa can occur in an environmentally sound manner. This statement is utterly baseless, and over the course of five years, the BLM is still of yet to offer any proof to back up their claims. Professor Whitford confirms, “cleared well pads should be considered as irreparable clearings within the grasslands.” Furthermore, because of the unique species of grasses in Otero Mesa it is nearly impossible for the BLM to find “commercially available seed” to restore the disturbed areas. Even if BLM used a more common grass seed, such as tussock, this type of seed is almost entirely absent from Otero Mesa and thus should be considered an exotic species. Therefore, the BLM’s reasoning that oil and gas development will not harm the fragile black grama grasslands and that restoration of this unique ecosystem can in fact be accomplished is utterly flawed. Furthermore, neither the draft plan nor final proposal, by the BLM explained how they would “restore” the disturbed areas. Apparently, the public and Otero Mesa are supposed to rely on the BLM’s word and the track record of the oil and gas industry.
Approximately 90% of the population of New Mexico depends on groundwater for drinking water and nearly half of all water used in the State for any purpose is groundwater, as indicated in a document written by Nada Culver, a lawyer with The Wilderness Society. In 2002, the State of New Mexico conducted a report that concluded a large fresh water aquifer, called the Salt Basin, lay beneath Otero Mesa, with enough fresh drinking water to supply 1 million New Mexicans for 100 years. Steven Finch, vice president and senior hydrologist with John Shomaker and Associates, expresses concern about the potential for groundwater pollution from oil and gas drilling:
The groundwater sits in a fractured limestone aquifer that’s susceptible to surface pollutants, as well as hazardous fluids that could seep into the basin during drilling activity. Drilling fluids used in the gas industry can contain contaminants. A byproduct of drilling for natural gas is a salty, brine-like water that is also produced from the wells. That water is then moved through collection lines and stored in tanks, where it is eventually injected deep into the aquifer through an injection well. The problem is that this salty, sometimes petroleum-laced water can make the groundwater unfit to drink.
The BLM has acknowledged that surface water and groundwater in Otero Mesa are both vulnerable to contamination from oil and gas operations, and that it does not have complete information on aquifers or other aspects of the condition of the water resources (RMPA/EIS for Sierra and Otero Counties). Nonetheless, BLM remains confident that it can rely on the oil and gas industry to not irreparably damage this precious resource. However, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (NMEMRD) found in 2001 that out of 734 cases of soil and groundwater contamination, oil and gas operations were responsible for a staggering 444 of them, or roughly 60 percent. Furthermore, the Oil Conservation Division (OCD), a sub-agency of the NMEMNRD, recently published a report on their website, which shows over 1400 additional cases of groundwater contamination due to oil and gas operations (www.emnrd.state.nm.us/).
Thankfully, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), is requesting that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) work with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to conduct a thorough aquifer study of the Salt Basin to determine its quantity and vulnerability. However, even if USGS does get the federal funding to carry out a water study, this analysis alone will not halt drilling as currently proposed by the BLM. It is clear that the BLM is ignoring the potential for groundwater contamination in the aquifer beneath Otero Mesa because their plan for drilling in this wild Chihuahuan Desert grassland is entirely shortsighted and driven by D.C. politics.
In May of 2001, the National Energy Policy Development Group, better known as the Cheney Energy Task Force, concocted a report for President Bush that overwhelming recommended the expansion of domestic energy production on public lands in the West. Accompanying the release of the Cheney report were two important executive orders, which directed all federal agencies, including the BLM, to “expedite energy-related projects […] and accelerate the completion of energy related projects.” Consequently, all state BLM directors, including New Mexico’s Linda Rundell, received a memorandum ordering the agency to authorize oil and gas development on public lands, without regard to the potential degradation of environmental, recreational, or cultural values. In the case of Otero Mesa, the agency was charging full steam ahead regardless of the fact that not all of the environmental consequences of such decisions had been thought through by the agency, or that the public had not yet had opportunities to fully participate in these decisions. Perhaps most disturbingly though is that State Director Rundell puts forth the argument that the plan to drill Otero Mesa is “the most restrictive that has ever come out with respect to oil and gas exploration and development on public lands.” This statement is purely designed to mislead the public and placate any oppositional argument—it is simply not the truth. Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society analyzes the BLM’s “most restrictive” plan and offers the facts in an unbiased manner: Out of the 1.2 million acres that comprise the wild public lands of Otero Mesa, the BLM will open 95%, to oil and gas development. Only 5% of this endangered ecosystem will be closed to development, of which almost half (35,000 acres) must legally be closed. It is unmistakably evident that the BLM’s plan to drill in Otero Mesa is heavily influenced by the Bush Administration’s perpetual thirst for oil and gas, and that it pays to have friends in high places.
The Harvey E. Yates Company, HEYCO, is no stranger to friends in high places. HEYCO, which started this whole debate when it drilled two tests wells in Otero Mesa in 1997, is a company, and more particularly a family, with strong ties to the Bush administration dating back more than twenty years. The Yates family has played a dominant role in oil and gas production since the 1920’s and has obtained enormous political power since then. Today, the family operates or is affiliated with more than 24 companies. In the early 1980’s, one of these subsidiary companies, Yates Petroleum, illegally bulldozed a road into the Salt Creek Wilderness just north of Roswell, NM. The ensuing protests and court challenges that followed this action proved to be unable to stop this powerful company from drilling in a Wilderness area, which has never occurred in New Mexico history. During this time, there were two stout supporters of the actions of Yates Petroleum, one being then Secretary of the Interior James Watt, and a congressman from Wyoming, Dick Cheney. Flash forward to the first term of the George W. Bush administration, just as the draft BLM plan for Otero Mesa is being issued. According to a 2004 report by the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands (CPAL), Yates Petroleum in 2001 paid then-lobbyist J. Stephen Griles more than $40,000 to lobby BLM to “secure funding for BLM staffing.” That meant ensuring that an official at BLM would create or revise a land use plan to allow an oil or gas company to drill, CPAL reported.
Shortly thereafter, Griles became deputy Interior secretary, under Gal Norton. In his new role, Griles met on December 6, 2002, with BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes and BLM Chief of Staff Conrad Lass to discuss the Otero drilling plan.
While at Interior, Griles continued to receive $284,000 per year under a buyout agreement from his former lobbying firm, National Environmental Strategies (NES), which had represented Yates for several years and continued to represent Yates while the payments were made, according to the CPAL report. It is during this time that the BLM then begins to make its changes to better accommodate the requests of HEYCO. Furthermore, during the 2002 election cycle, George Yates, President of HEYCO, held a fundraiser in Roswell, NM for congressional candidate Steve Pearce, with Vice President Dick Cheney as the guest of honor. Pearce went on to win the 2nd congressional seat in New Mexico and has sense been a strong advocate for drilling in Otero Mesa. Though there may not be a smoking gun linking the Yates family to the Bush administration’s national energy policy, or subsequently to the BLM’s final proposal for Otero Mesa, there remains considerable evidence that this family and its companies long history has pushed its power beyond the borders of New Mexico and into policies being written from Washington.
New Mexico’s Otero Mesa to oil and gas drilling will most certainly not be done in an “environmentally sound manner,” neither will it improve the nations energy security, nor lower the cost of gasoline at the pump. By researching the data provided by the BLM in their draft and final proposals for Otero Mesa, it becomes quite clear that the area does not hold vast amounts of oil or gas. What drilling in Otero Mesa will do, however, is destroy the largest and wildest Chihuahuan Desert grassland left in America, contaminate one of the last sources of fresh drinking water in a drought-ridden New Mexico, and perpetuate a myopic 19th century approach to achieving energy independence, without consideration or respect to our quality of life. The Bureau of Lands Management’s plan for drilling in Otero Mesa is without a doubt downright obtuse. It is simply not necessary.
The time has come for not just New Mexicans, but all Americans to stand up in a united voice and demand protection for Otero Mesa, no matter what the cost. We cannot afford to sacrifice or jeopardize our future because of a few fanatical politicians whose beliefs only live in the past.