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Oil boom not without conflicts

Editor’s note: This story is part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, The Texas Tribune, The Associated Press and Newsy.

CARLSBAD – Wayne Smith was hardened to a certain level of chaos here, on land the American public owns. But even he was incredulous as he surveyed an area he leases for grazing, now cleared of grass and cluttered with above-ground pipelines, a drill pad for multiple wells and other oil and gas infrastructure.

A well-flare burns on the southwest corner of the Smith Ranch. Kenneth Smith Inc. continues to be responsible for the grazing fees associated with the lands, even though vegetation now no longer grows there. (Robin Zielinski/The Las Cruces Sun News)

“I still pay a grazing lease right there,” Smith said in May, pointing to a government map showing there should be no more than 17 acres of development on the site instead of the 125 acres he saw in front of him. “Now, what’s my cow going to eat?”

This isn’t what’s supposed to happen on publicly owned land the federal government oversees. The Bureau of Land Management can lease the same property to more than one party at once, but if New Mexico ranchers request it – as Smith did – the agency has instructed its field offices to contact them before such a build-up occurs. Smith said no one notified him.

Violations, from oil spills to haphazard land restoration, are becoming more common in this hotbed of oil and gas activity, according to ranchers and conservation groups. One sign of the area’s increasing appeal for drilling: A September federal oil and gas lease sale brought in a record-breaking $972 million. Jim Stovall, a local BLM official, admitted at a meeting in May that his team doesn’t have the resources to enforce all the rules on the books, according to five people who heard his remarks.

But the Trump administration’s priority is to speed up oil and gas permitting and to open tens of thousands of additional acres to drilling here. For years, the industry in New Mexico has had outsize access to local BLM officials – federal employees relying on the private sector for everything from money to expertise. Now, it’s getting assistance from Washington.

“We want to make the BLM a better business partner for the oil and gas industry,” Michael Nedd, then-acting director of the agency, said last year at the Carlsbad Mayor’s Energy Summit.

The BLM declined to answer specific questions, instead releasing a general statement saying the agency is “committed to sustainably developing our Nation’s energy and natural resources.”

Conservationists, ranchers and others worry that allowing more drilling without addressing the problems already created by ramped-up production could threaten one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world, put local water supplies and the global climate at risk and scar the land so it can’t be used for other purposes afterward.

The conflict is happening against a backdrop of record U.S. production of oil and gas, and the Permian Basin in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico is in the heart of that boom. The Permian includes about 2 million acres of land and 3 million acres of minerals managed by the BLM around Carlsbad. In New Mexico, production is occurring ever closer to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a United Nations World Heritage Site.

Government officials say accelerating permitting will bring much-needed jobs and money. The permitting process, some say, had been hijacked by anti-development interests.

“Texas was blessed, not just with a larger portion of the basin, but also with no federal lands,” New Mexico Energy Secretary Ken McQueen told Congress in June. “In Texas you can have a permit and a rig on location quicker than you can fill out the paperwork to drill a well on federal acreage in New Mexico.”

The Trump administration eliminated a required 30-day public comment period before land is leased and directed BLM employees to skip in-depth environmental assessments for oil and gas projects whenever possible.

Robert McEntyre with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said those moves simply require BLM to follow the law, a “prudent step.” But for Brent Keith with The Nature Conservancy, it calls into question “how much they are putting a thumb on the scale in terms of energy dominance.”

Some here fear their way of life will become collateral damage. Leasing public land is a key part of the Smith family’s cattle operation – true of many ranchers. Before Wayne Smith died in October at age 47, he kept calling the BLM for help.

It didn’t work.

“We can’t stop anything that’s happening now,” he said about five months before his death from undetermined causes. “We can only survive. And there’s a point where survival is not there anymore.”

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