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BLM defers drilling near Carlsbad Caverns

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Oil and gas operations on the outskirts of Carlsbad Caverns National Park are off the table, at least for now.

The Bureau of Land Management had included about 25 parcels within 10 miles of the park in an initial lease-sale proposal published in April in response to requests from oil and gas operators seeking new areas to drill in southeastern New Mexico. That generated energetic opposition from environmental groups, which said such operations in and around the area’s unique limestone-based geology could impact Carlsbad Cavern’s delicate ecosystem, while threatening fresh groundwater systems.

However, in its final proposal for the Sept. 6 lease sale, published Monday, the BLM excluded all parcels within a 10-mile radius of the park to allow the agency more time to study the local geology and its interaction with groundwater, said Melanie Barnes, BLM’s deputy state director for land and resources.

“We’re deferring 31 parcels — all the ones close to the park,” Barnes said. “That includes two parcels that were under one mile from the park, and one within a mile.”

The BLM will now offer 142 parcels for lease in its September auction in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties, down from 173 initially.

Some environmental organizations may still oppose the remaining leases for sale during a 10-day protest period that runs through Aug. 1.

WildEarth Guardians and others remain concerned about deteriorating air quality from the general expansion of industry operations in the Permian Basin in West Texas and southeast New Mexico. In addition, they want the BLM to postpone new lease sales until it completes a new resource management plan for the area.

A first draft of the new plan is expected in August, opening a 90-day comment period.

But environmentalists did offer cautious praise for BLM’s decision to defer leases near Carlsbad Caverns.

“I’m very pleased the BLM listened to the public’s concerns by recognizing that these are delicate and rare resources that need to be studied and analyzed more before any leasing takes place in that area,” said Ernie Atencio, New Mexico program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Becca Fischer of WildEarth Guardians called it “a step in the right direction.”

The lease deferrals will give the BLM time to study how the area’s underground water systems interact with the subterranean topography formed by the region’s soft limestone bed. That geology, known as a karst system, creates crevices, tunnels and caverns that can affect water flow and basins.

“We want to look more at those cave karst resources and some of the drainages to better understand how it all ties together hydrologically,” said BLM Pecos District Manager Jim Stovall.

Still, the issue could easily resurface if industry operators nominate more parcels in the area.

“It may well come up again in a future lease sale,” Barnes said.

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