When it comes to the Otero Mesa, folks involved in the struggle over oil and gas drilling permits seldom agree on what they define as need, and what they define as greed. Oil and gas companies, for instance, argue that drilling in the Otero Mesa would help to boost the local economy by bringing jobs and supplying additional funding to state education. But there are others, such as conservationists, ranchers and sportsmen, who say that the benefits of drilling on the vast section of Chihuahuan desert in south-central New Mexico have a cost—and it's more than we can afford.
Originally, there wasn't much interest in drilling in the area that stretches from the Hueco Mountains to the Guadalupe Mountains. The land, which had previously been drilled on a small-scale, had never produced any oil or natural gas, and so was mainly ignored by the industry. But in 1997 two wells were drilled that yielded successful results—4.4 million cubic feet of natural gas per day's worth (which was the amount produced by just one of the wells)—and suddenly interest in the land boomed. The Bureau of Land Management began receiving a flood of lease applications, and so leasing was halted and a plan was initiated to determine whether the land could be opened up for more extensive drilling.
Last month, nearly seven years later, a record of decision was issued by BLM, stating that 69 percent of the two million-acre Otero Mesa will be opened up to drilling. But Hans Stuart, chief executive affairs officer for BLM, said that only 5 percent of the leased lands will reflect any surface disturbance, adding up to a total of 1,589 acres. The area will also allow for a maximum of 141 exploratory wells, 84 of which are estimated to be successful. Stuart also said that any drilled land must be restored before a company will be allowed to move on to another parcel and begin again, making the well sites a "temporary footprint." He says that by employing restoration, along with developing only a minimal amount of land, natural resources will be protected.
Yet, despite BLM's cheery optimism, there are others who say that there's more to these numbers than meets the eye. "Once again in New Mexico, we are being given a classic bait and switch," said Stephen Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance in a recent press release. "We are told this is environmentally sound, but the facts clearly show the oil and gas industry is being given another free ride at the expense of New Mexico's future water supplies and our quality of life."
The issues that Capra speaks of are that the drilling done on the land will lead to habitat fragmentation, a potentially deadly threat to wildlife, and that the largest remaining source of groundwater in the state will be put in jeopardy.
Otero Mesa is home to a host of flora and fauna. It is a crucial wintering ground for migratory birds, including the Baird's Sparrow, Lark Bunting and Burrowing Owls, in addition to numerous raptor species and many other bird species common to northern prairie states. It is also an ideal place to reintroduce the Aplomado Falcon, an endangered species. The mesa is home to one of the state's most genetically pure herds of pronghorned antelope, which have remained so strong that they have never needed reintroduction. The threat to these animals, along with the many other species that live in the area, is primarily through habitat fragmentation. By developing on land arbitrarily, and not taking natural migratory patterns and wildlife corridors into consideration, many species end up isolated and cut-off from other groups that allow them to maintain their genetic diversity, thereby risking their survival. For instance, just five years ago there was a herd of 300 pronghorn north of Carlsbad, not unlike the herd that currently inhabits the Otero Mesa. Yet, because of fragmentation, pollution and the stress of increased human presence that herd of 300 has now dwindled to 30—all within the last few years.
Another issue garnering a lot of attention is the aquifer that sits beneath the Otero Mesa. It's the largest remaining source of drinking water in New Mexico, totaling over 30 million acre-feet, according to reports from The Wilderness Society. That's enough water to serve a population of 500,000 people for more than 50 years. BLM's Stuart says that drilling in the area won't compromise the water source. He says that current technology, such as using thick steel pipes encased in concrete wells will prevent groundwater from migrating from one layer to another. "Drilling technology and government oversight has improved greatly since the days that oil and gas exploration began in New Mexico in the 1920s," he said.
But others disagree. Steven Finch, vice president and senior hydrologist with John Shomaker and Associates, is concerned 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, Finch says.
The use of injection wells adds another potential source of contamination. 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, says Finch, that this salty, sometimes petroleum-laced water can make the groundwater unfit to drink. Although oil and gas companies believe that by injecting the tainted water deep enough into the aquifer they will spare the majority of the water from infection, Finch says that he thinks there is a high probability of contamination due to the highly fractured nature of the area. He says that there is also the potential for the collection lines to break on the surface, which would allow for the polluted water to seep into the aquifer. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has documented 171 cases of groundwater contamination in New Mexico caused by oil and gas activities.
How much natural gas sits underneath the Otero Mesa also remains an open question. The oil and gas industry estimates that over 19 trillion cubic feet of gas could be found in the Orogrande Basin, part of which underlies the Otero Mesa. The rest of it sits beneath the White Sands Missile Range, which will probably never be opened to oil and gas development. This means that much of the gas within the basin will never be reached, and the earlier figure would drop down drastically. However, the Coalition for Otero Mesa argues in a recently produced fact sheet that even if the industry estimate was used, it would still only be enough gas to last the country 10 months, when commercial and industrial gas use is taken into account along with household use. Additionally, the coalition says that based on reports of gas production in the year 2000 from the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resource Department, that the amount of natural gas produced from Otero Mesa every year would amount to less than 1 percent of what the state already produces.
Yet another concern stems from the risk from air pollution. Data derived from the U.S. EPA National Emissions Trend (NET) database, shows that the three principal counties in New Mexico for oil and gas development—San Juan, Eddy and Lea—are not only the three worst in the state for carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, but also rank among the dirtiest in the nation. Pollutants such as these can cause severe health problems, such as asthma, miscarriage, infertility, emphysema and lung cancer. The effects of these pollutants are found nationwide, and New Mexico is no exception. The state health department reports that in 1994, nearly twice as many people in Lea County were diagnosed with respiratory illness as were diagnosed on average throughout the state. Additionally, within Lea County in 1995 there were 143 children who were reported to have suffered from asthma. By 2000, that number had tripled. And concurrently, in 1995 in Eddy County there were 171 children diagnosed with asthma. By 2000, that number grew to 528, a 300 percent increase in five years.
Even though the record of decision has been issued by BLM, the fight is far from over. Gov. Bill Richardson teamed up with Attorney General Patricia Madrid last month to proclaim they "will pursue every avenue of appeal both administratively and in federal court" to fight the development of drilling in Otero Mesa. Richardson offered BLM a compromise back in March, which was rejected. His plan would have allowed for some leasing to be done while still protecting some of the more sensitive grasslands in the area and protecting groundwater, hunting grounds and grazing land.
The BLM's Stuart said that the compromise was refused in part because the land that would have been open to leases wouldn't be sufficient for exploratory drilling. George Yates, President of Harvey E. Yates Co. (Heyco), the primary company proposing large development in Otero Mesa, was unavailable for comment last week—his office said he was away on a cruise.
And so over the coming months, while the governor is pushing for environmental protection in federal court, others will also be working to thwart drilling efforts. At a rally last week at the KiMo Theatre for the Otero Mesa, the Valle Vidal, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, speaker Gloria Flora, a former Forest Service Supervisor, eloquently echoed a sentiment held by many of the organizations and groups working to protect public lands, "Birds sing to define their territory. So I suggest that we sing at the top of our lungs. We are going to sing about our vision and our love of this common land that we share. And we know that when we're singing we're not just singing to hear ourselves, but we're singing for all the grandchildren of all species of all time."