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New Mexico public land sale to oil and gas put on hold during COVID-19 pandemic

The sale of about 45,000 acres of public land in New Mexico and Oklahoma was postponed by the federal Bureau of Land Management with little explanation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Postponing a lease sale does not mean it will not occur in the future.

The sale which was scheduled for May 20 and 21, offered 95 parcels of land throughout southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

In Eddy County, five parcels were offered in the final sale, records show, on about 3,500 acres of public land.

Lea County had 10 parcels at about 4,100 acres in the sale, and Wise County, Texas offered one parcel on 31 acres.

Most of the sale – about 80 percent of the parcels – was in a southeastern region of Chaves County with 79 parcels nominated for sale on about 37,000 acres of land.

Parcels previously nominated in the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico were removed from the sale, records show.

But on the first day of the sale, the BLM’s website posted a notice that it would be postponed without giving a new date or a reason for the postponement.

BLM Spokesperson Cathy Garber said the agency would provide more information.

“The BLM New Mexico oil and gas lease sale scheduled for May 20-21, 2020 has been postponed,” Garber said in a statement. “The BLM will provide further information at a future date. That’s the only information I have at this time.”

Accompanying the BLM’s notice of the sale’s postponement was a statement explaining that the agency was implementing social distancing and employees were urged to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, intending to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

All BLM actions, including public comment periods and lease sales were being evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the report read.

“The health and safety of the public and our employees is our highest priority, and we continue to follow guidance put forth by the White House, the CDC and state and local authorities, as we implement teleworking, social distancing, and virtual meeting tools,” read the statement.

“All of our actions, including comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for proper public input while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees.”

Public comments for the May 2020 lease sale were only being accepted via mail directly to BLM offices or by email to blm_nm_leasesale@blm.gov.

Judy Calman with Audubon New Mexico said future leases should be blocked during the pandemic, until the public can provide adequate input and the government can exert proper oversight.

“Leasing would have been especially egregious during the COVID-19 pandemic, where public participation in federal decision-making has been extremely compromised, and when the government has admitted it will scale back or even halt some of its environmental enforcement due to the pandemic,” Calman said.

She said drilling in the nominated parcels could also harm local wildlife.

“We are relieved to know that BLM is postponing the May lease sale,” Calman said. “Drilling these parcels would have harmed migratory birds using Carlsbad’s desert rivers for critical rest stops, as well as other animals throughout the corridors.”

Director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club Camilla Feibelman said oil and gas lease sales should be halted altogether during the pandemic, as the market struggles and land leased was unlikely to be development by the industry in the coming months.

“We certainly think now is not the time to hold lease sales,” she said. “Now is not the time to lock in land that no one has interest in drilling on. This is the time to look at companies shutting in and abandoning wells and making sure that enforcement is being properly conducted.”

Feibelman said less production could lead to increases in pollution from extraction operations as wells are idled and potentially see less oversight.

“Just because there is a reduction in demand doesn’t mean there is less pollution,” Feibelman said. “There are even some suggestions that you could see emissions increase. This is the time to get our house in order. We need to make sure that when extraction is done, it’s done right and in a way that protects the community and that the industry is held responsible for doing that.”

She said the New Mexico must work to finish the ongoing process to develop the State’s first regulations on methane emissions, as federal regulations were rolled back by the administration of President Donald Trump.

Sales in culturally significant and geologically vulnerable areas of New Mexico such as the Greater Chaco area in the San Juan Basin to the northwest, and the Greater Carlsbad area in the Permian so the southeast, were being unduly targeted, Feibelman said, for oil and gas drilling.

“We are extremely concerned about the Trump administration’s relentless energy dominance approach. They are holding lease sales in areas that are vulnerable,” she said. “They (oil and gas companies) are extracting a public resource off public land and are willing to waste methane and expose communities to pollution.

“They need to be good neighbors.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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©2020 the Carlsbad Current-Argus (Carlsbad, N.M.)

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