Every 10 years or so, the U.S. Department of Interior reviews our nation's natural resource management policies, and then officials determine things like how many drilling and mining permits will be issued to private industries.
As part of a recent round of updated policy-making, Bureau of Land Management officials, under authority of the Interior Department, decided to permit roughly 10,000 new oil and natural gas wells in the San Juan Basin. The permits would be good for the next several decades.
Some folks in northern New Mexico were not happy about this, and as a result, an odd coalition of ranchers, Navajo representatives and environmental groups filed a lawsuit against BLM in Washington, D.C., last week seeking to minimize the number of permits while drawing attention to environmental concerns.
Tweeti Blancett said she joined the alliance because the new BLM policy ignores the pollution that has caused her family to shut down their ranching operation and in general is causing contamination and environmental degradation in the area.
Blancett said her family, while ranching in the area for six generations, has exercised diligence in managing the forage by rotating pastures, thus keeping the water clean and making sure wildlife has an ability to survive. The oil, coal and gas industries, however, don't seem to be operating by the same environmental ethos, she said.
It's enough reason for Blancett—the San Juan County coordinator for George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 and a lifelong Republican—to now describe herself as apolitical. She called the unusual group of plaintiffs "an unholy alliance."
"Unite might be a bit of a stretch of a word," she said. "We've decided we have strength in numbers. It's really refreshing. We're all Americans, and we can agree on certain things. "
She said what the plaintiffs all agree upon can be summed up in two words—surface damage.
"The contaminants in the water, air, soil, the pipelines, noxious weeds, roads—the whole industry has damaged our ranch to where it isn't useable and BLM has allowed it."
Across most of the San Juan Basin, the BLM controls drilling (or subsurface) rights, even on private land. It is a common practice for BLM to allow energy companies to build drilling pads, pipelines and roads on the surface area to accommodate the subsurface land lease, whether for extracting natural gas, oil or coalbed methane. If a private property owner objects, there is little they can do about it.
Likewise, while a rancher might hold the lease for surface grazing on federal lands, the BLM allows energy companies to alter the surface with wells, roads, fences and pipelines in order to expedite their subsurface lease agreement. If the infrastructure negatively impacts the grass grazing, there isn't much the rancher can do about it outside of litigation.
"It is fast paced and it is intense and we do have accidents," said Steve Henke, Farmington field manager for BLM, describing the drilling and exploration process. "But to characterize it as a wholesale devastation is not fair or accurate in my opinion."
Henke said the BLM is trying to serve as an effective landlord for all parties involved in land leases and added that no more than 3 percent of the land in the San Juan Basin is used for oil, gas and coalbed methane extraction. He said the recent increase in drilling permits is a result in an uptick in natural gas prices, but added that most of the new wells are not going to be drilled on "virgin country" but near established wellsites.
"In the overall picture, is that 3 percent too great a price to heat our homes and run our industries?" said Henke. "In my judgement, it's not."
BP America, along with Burlington Resources, lead the largest natural gas operations in the region. Although he declined to comment on pending litigation, Dan Larson, BP America's spokesman said the company can drill with minimum impact on the environment.
"No company can operate with disregard for environment and neighbors, that would cost the company more than its worth," said Larson. "I wish we could be more specific, but our belief is it makes more sense for the company to act responsibly."
Until this year, Ms. Blancett's family ran cattle on 32,000 acres near Aztec, of which 90 percent was federal land and the other 10 percent privately owned or leased from the state.
"We have ranched the land for all these years," said Blancett, "We understand drought and lack of forage. What we don't understand is contamination that causes death and abortion (to the cattle)."
Chris Velasquez, another local rancher and friend of Blancett's, told Sierra magazine in a July 2003 interview that he had paid for an autopsy on one of his cows after losing eight in one week. The report showed consumption of "toxic oil-field byproducts" as the cause of death. The article also stated that Velasquez sent water samples from his ranch that sits just below Navajo Dam to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture for examination and was told to "prevent access to this water source at all expense," after high levels of petroleum had been found. Velasquez is not listed as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, although he is a member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance that was formed a few years ago to express environmental concerns.
Blancett said her family's ranch is so polluted that after recent pregnancy tests on 200 cows revealed 195 were pregnant, the family opted to sell the entire herd instead of grow the numbers for a larger return in the future.
"That's an excellent rate of conception," said Blancett. "But we knew if we turned our cattle out, our wellsites and water are so contaminated, they'd contribute to (fetal deaths)."
In lieu of turning out the herd, Blancett said her family, for the next two years, plans to privately fund tests for water and soil contamination on the property. She said ranchers in the area are "tired of trying to continually police the oil patch."
"If I'm not going to turn out my cattle on it, imagine what is happening to the other wildlife," said Blancett. "What's happened in San Juan is going to happen throughout the West if we as a people don't say enough is enough."
According to a recent New York Times article, Navajo officials also object to the BLM's approval of exploration and drilling for natural gas in areas with religious significance. The area borders the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region and is now permitted for drilling and 1,000 miles of road construction. Overall, the San Juan Basin region accounts for 7 percent of all natural gas production in the United States.
Celia Boddington, a BLM spokesperson in Washington, referred the Alibi to the BLM's Santa Fe office for more information, although local representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Blancett, who also runs a hotel in Aztec, said the unusual alliance might not have "the billions for advertising and lobbying" that seem to help the large energy industries receive so much access to the land without being enforced to "clean up their mess." She said the energy corporations collectively profited $1.4 billion last year and had revenues of roughly $4.5 billion over the past four years—of which about $400 million benefits the taxpayers of New Mexico through land use agreements.
"They do a good job of running their business. I have no problem with them making a profit. I do have a problem with what they are doing to the rest of us."
All in all, Blancett still sounded optimistic.
"We westerners are ridiculously independent," she said. "They picked the wrong people to mess with. I would invite anyone to come up and see what is happening. These federal lands are being used and abused."
What about the New Mexico congressional delegation? Have they been any help?
"Being polite and listening is wonderful, but I don't see any results," Blancett said, adding that some of her environmental friends want to lay all the blame on Bush, when environmental damage also happened during the Clinton administration. Then she added: "Although this (Bush) administration has sure rolled back some protections that the land and water need."