New Mexico Vows to Fight Otero Mesa Drilling Plan

SANTA FE, New Mexico, January 26, 2005 (ENS) - The state of New Mexico will fight the Bush administration's decision to open much of the Otero Mesa grasslands area to oil and gas drilling with "everything we've got," New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said Monday.

The drilling plan fails to protect sensitive ecosystems and groundwater supplies within the rare desert grassland, said Richardson, who blasted the Bush administration for ignoring the "concerns of thousands of New Mexicans who demand this area be protected from insensitive drilling."

The plan impacts some two million acres of the Otero Mesa area, which includes one of the largest remaining intact swaths of Chihuahuan Desert grassland and is home to an array of wildlife, including several endangered species.

The remote area also holds a supply of clean ground water large enough to supply more 800,000 people or half of New Mexico's current population. Critics of Otero Mesa drilling fear the oil and gas development could contaminate this supply.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says it has integrated concerns about the ecological impact of oil and gas drilling into its plan, which officials describe as "one of the most restrictive plans ever developed for oil and gas leasing on federal lands."

Linda Rundell, director of the BLM in New Mexico, said the agency has the "science, the tools, and the will to ensure that the very limited amount of exploration and development allowed under this plan is accomplished under today's strict environmental and social standards." Otero

A diverse group of New Mexicans - ranchers, conservationists and hunters - oppose the drilling plan for the Otero Mesa. (Photo by Raymond Watt courtesy New Mexico Wilderness Alliance)
The plan allows drilling on all but some 124,000 acres, including 36,000 acres the agency will permanently protect as habitat for the endangered Aplomado falcon.

Although the remainder of the two million acre area is open to oil and gas drilling, the BLM says it will only allow up to 141 exploratory wells and 84 producing wells within Otero Mesa.

These wells - along with roads and pipelines allowed under the plan - will cause a maximum surface disturbance of some 1,589 acres, according to the BLM.

The agency says the plan will impact "less than one-tenth of one percent of the total surface area of two million acres."

The plan includes a pledge by the agency to ensure all disturbed areas within leases are replanted with native Chihuahuan desert plants before other areas can be developed.

"Our reclamation strategy is aggressive and adaptable to the various stages of oil and gas development," said Ed Roberson, manager of BLM's Las Cruces Field Office. "Reclamation will be a systematic effort to ensure it is completed with appropriate vegetation for each site."

The pledges contained within the BLM plan do not satisfy Richardson, who said the administration ignored a compromise proposal he submitted last spring.

"I sent the Interior Department the best analysis ever done by a state with respect to its land management process," said Richardson, former energy secretary during the Clinton administration. "Our plan protects most of Otero Mesa but allows leasing in some parts."

Richardson' plan called for tighter restrictions on drilling as well as stricter protection of groundwater and only allowed drilling within some 700,000 acres.

BLM officials did not address the governor's concerns, prompting the state to file an appeal in June. BLM Director Kathleen Clarke subsequently denied that appeal.

"Thousands of New Mexico ranchers, hunters and conservationists, regardless of party affiliation, are opposed to oil and gas leasing at Otero Mesa," Richardson said. "By failing to compromise, the federal government might have taken two steps backward, tying this issue up for years."

New Mexico State Attorney General Patricia Madrid said state will "pursue every avenue of appeal both administratively and in federal court."

"It is not acceptable for the BLM to fail to observe its own written policy regarding the state's role in federal land management," Madrid said. Richardson

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (Photo courtesy Governor's Office)
The Otero Mesa controversy is already the subject of a lawsuit. Last month environmental groups filed suit in federal court in a bid to uncover documents relating to the plan.

The plaintiffs - the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society - contend the plan reflects the willingness of the Bush administration to side with the oil and gas industry against the public interest.

The groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request last spring seeking the documents, but were not satisfied with the BLM's response.

In July, the agency released some general background documents but the environmental groups said the BLM withheld more than 10,000 pages that address the potential adverse environmental impacts oil and gas exploration would have on the Otero Mesa.

Those documents were shared with industry representatives, the plaintiffs allege.

"If the oil and gas corporations are permitted to see the plans, the public should also be welcome," said The Wilderness Society's Pam Eaton. "That is how we will achieve balanced management plans that work for our land, our water, and our communities."