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House Votes Against Valle Vidal Drilling

By Jennifer Talhelm
The Associated Press
    WASHINGTON— House lawmakers on Monday approved a bill to protect northern New Mexico's mineral-rich Valle Vidal from gas drilling, putting the issue of whether to keep the region off-limits to energy companies in the Senate's hands.
    In 2002, El Paso Exploration and Production Co. asked the Forest Service to open 40 percent of the 101,794-acre valley in the Carson National Forest for coal-bed methane drilling.
    Thousands of people have said the Valle Vidal is too pristine to allow drilling, including all of New Mexico's federal delegation except Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who has yet to take a position.
    If the Senate approves it, the House bill would scuttle the drilling proposal and prevent energy companies from leasing in the Valle Vidal in the future.
    "This bill is what all of us in the coalition wanted, which was to permanently protect the Valle Vidal from oil and gas and mineral exploration," Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., the bill's sponsor, said. "I'm going to give both Sen. Domenici and Sen. (Jeff) Bingaman a call and let them know what transpired here and that I hope for their support."
    The fate of the bill rests in part with Domenici, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who has the power to decide whether any bill dealing with the Valle Vidal will go to the full Senate.
    Bingaman, D-N.M., has introduced another Valle Vidal bill in the Senate that would make the area a national preserve, protecting it while allowing public access.
    On Monday, Domenici commended Udall for his work on the bill. But he said he wants to wait for a report from the Forest Service about whether drilling is an appropriate use for the valley.
    "My hunch is that they're going to determine that you ... probably shouldn't (drill)," Domenici said. "But I think we ought to let that happen rather than precipitously stop it when there is such a terrific problem in the country with natural gas."
    Environmentalists have said the Valle Vidal's natural beauty and pristine land would be ruined by drilling.
    The coalition to protect the Valle Vidal— or "Valley of Life"— includes sportsmen and environmentalists, who say it is a key watershed for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, the state fish, and home to New Mexico's largest elk herd.
    Protecting the region has even become an issue in the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District race, many miles from the Carson National Forest. In June, the Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, signed a pledge to always oppose oil and gas drilling in the Valle Vidal, pointing out that her Republican opponent, Rep. Heather Wilson, did not back Udall's bill.
    Wilson co-sponsored the bill three days later.
    On Monday, Wilson said she had evaluated the legislation and decided the Valle Vidal should be protected.
    "The Valle Vidal is a great recreational, scenic and wildlife area, and the summer destination for up to 3,000 Boy Scouts on a wilderness experience each year," she said in a statement. "These are its best uses."

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