Groups want BLM in Farmington to halt drilling permits

FARMINGTON — Officials with the Bureau of Land Management say they will organize an internal committee to respond to a letter from environmentalists that calls for the bureau to stop issuing oil and gas drilling permits until an environmental analysis is complete.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Chaco Alliance, WildEarth Guardians and the Western Environmental Law Center sent a 34-page letter to the bureau on Monday outlining issues with BLM’s Farmington Field Office and its approval of Mancos Shale drilling permits.

A BLM spokeswoman, Donna Hummel, said the agency received the letter and will draft a formal response to its demands.

“Yes, we are in receipt of the letter, and we have responded back. We have responded back to the authors,” Hummel said, adding that an internal team has been formed to prepare a full response.

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In the letter, the environmental groups state the BLM continues to issue permits for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but hasn’t analyzed how the process affects the environment.

“The BLM’s rampant approval of Mancos shale drilling and fracking is not only threatening the region’s air, water and wildlife, but undermining our nation’s progress in reducing greenhouse gases and combating climate change,” the letter states.

Issues outlined in the letter include methane emissions, flaring, protection of cultural resources and water usage.

“(The letter) raises a lot of concerns. The BLM is leaping before looking at what the consequences are of committing public land,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, in a phone interview.

He said one of the issues the group is concerned about is the use of water to fracture rock formations.

Nichols said about 1.3 million gallons of water are needed to fracture rocks to drill one well, and the environmental groups’ concerns are growing as hundreds of wells are drilled.

“You got to look at the bigger picture here before you start approving all these wells,” Nichols said.

But Wally Drangmeister, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the amount of water needed varies from well to well. Horizontal fracturing wells use more water, he said.

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The majority of wells in the San Juan Basin use a mixture of water and nitrogen to fracture the rock formation, Drangmeister said. The mixture can have up to 70 percent of water.

The New Mexico Office of State Engineer released findings earlier this month stating the oil and gas industry uses about .14 percent of fresh water in the state.

“Certainly, we use a lot of water when you look at it from a gallon point of view, but (compared to) other uses, it’s a tremendously small amount,” Drangmeister said.

According to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, fracturing wells in San Juan County used about 7,530 barrels, or about 237,000 gallons, of water.

Nichols said the BLM needs to make environmental risks public and slow down permitting efforts until more environmental studies can be conducted.

In 2013, 92 wells used fracturing technology in San Juan County. That year, Eddy County fracked 883 wells, according to the Oil Conservation Division.

Nichols said environmental groups want the BLM to think long-term and about how many more wells could be drilled in the San Juan Basin.

“The BLM should take a time-out while they complete their analysis,” Nichols said.

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Erny Zah is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and ezah@daily-times.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.

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