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Balancing energy leases and vital wildlife habitat

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Malard ducks sit on the Pecos River as it flows through the Permian Basin south of Carlsbad Tuesday November 5, 2019. There are hundreds of oil wells around the area. (Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

A flock of quail scurries across the road near a drilling rig. A tiny sand dune lizard makes its home not far from a natural gas pipeline. Fish swim along the Pecos River through one of the world’s most prolific oil fields.

Desert animals coexist with oil wells and pumpjacks in southeast New Mexico, but a new management plan could determine what land should be set aside for wildlife habitat and what land can remain open to federal energy leases.

Bureau of Land Management field offices update a Resource Management Plan every few decades. For the Carlsbad office, the document – which was amended in 1997 and 2008 – will shape the agency’s control of 2 million acres of federal land. The office released a draft plan in August 2018 and is expected to publish the final proposed plan this month.

Under the current plan created in 1988, about 97% of the Carlsbad field office area is open to energy development. The new preferred alternative would increase that to 98%.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance lists four “areas of critical environmental concern,” or ACEC, they want the agency to protect from large-scale energy development.

The Alliance recommends 556,312 acres for ACEC, and BLM’s preferred alternative would maintain or create 98,562 acres of ACEC. BLM’s proposed alternative would “address resource conflict rather than geographic separation of uses or focused use.”

According to the Carlsbad field office website, the BLM policy is “to promote oil and gas development if it meets the guidelines and regulations set forth by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969” and subsequent federal laws.

The environmental group isn’t asking for a full leasing closure of federal lands in most places.

“We would want sensitive areas to be excluded, like areas right next to rivers, which unfortunately remain open now,” said Judy Calman, attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “But some areas could just require specific management practices, such as no on-site frack ponds or no new roads.”

Since being interviewed by the Journal, Calman has taken a job at Audubon New Mexico.

One area of concern is a northern Eddy County grassland that houses a diverse raptor population. The BLM draft plan says proposed wildlife management practices are enough to protect this area without removing it from energy leasing. The agency would mandate raptor nest surveys before approving drilling applications, and would require a 656-foot buffer between raptor nests and drilling activities.

Another area is in the Chihuahuan Desert at the confluence of the Pecos, Black and Delaware rivers.

“That is an important rest stop for migratory birds that has been designated by Audubon,” Calman said. “It has been decimated by oil and gas in the past 10 years.”

The final two areas are smaller salt playas home to several bird species. If the salt playas are not listed in the final plan, the BLM could prohibit drilling within 3,000 feet of an active heron habitat from February to July. All four areas are mentioned in the draft plan, but none would gain protection under BLM’s preferred alternative.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has the option to inform the BLM if the resource management plan does or does not align with the state’s vision for energy development. Former Gov. Bill Richardson did that in 2004 for a Las Cruces plan.

The federal agency’s mission as a multiple land use organization has transformed under the current presidential administration. In Montana, Colorado, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon, the BLM has proposed removing ACEC designations in favor of energy development.

That has some groups worried about setting a precedent to open up more susceptible areas in New Mexico.

Prior to January 2017, the Carlsbad BLM field office held energy lease sales once a year. Now, area leases are up for sale four times a year. Public comment periods for many New Mexico sales have been shortened from 30 to 10 days.

A portion of revenues from federal oil and gas leases are shared with the state. Once a BLM parcel is leased, an oil company can develop as much of the lease as possible while it remains productive.

“If you don’t stop oil and gas leasing on these sensitive wildlife areas at the leasing stage, there’s not much you can do after that,” Calman said.

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