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Otero Plan on Way to BLM

By Tania Soussan
Copyright 2004 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The federal government's plan to guide future oil and gas development on Otero Mesa violates several state policies and should be dramatically more restrictive, according to Gov. Bill Richardson.
    The governor's consistency review, which includes an alternative plan to manage the area in southwestern New Mexico, will be delivered to the Bureau of Land Management today.
    Richardson, environmentalists, ranchers and hunters have criticized the BLM plan, saying it falls far short of what is needed to protect fragile and biologically rich Chihuahuan Desert grasslands.
    Oil and gas industry representatives say the restrictions in the federal plan, which covers 5 million acres of BLM land in Otero and Sierra counties, might hamper development.
    The state's proposal would put 310,500 acres completely off limits to drilling, require directional drilling to access about 333,000 acres and place stringent restrictions on 894,000 acres— all to protect plants and animals, ground water and cultural resources.
    The state plan leaves 709,350 acres open to leasing with no special restrictions, compared with 1.4 million acres in the BLM plan.
    "It is not fluff," said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Joanna Prukop, the lead author of the review. "It is not bluff. It is intended to be concrete and reasonable."
    She said that, despite the tougher restrictions, the industry will still be able to access what could be a large natural gas reserve under Otero Mesa.
    "We're not asking for a lot. It's not greedy," Prukop said. "The area can still be developed."
    BLM officials said they want to work with the governor but cannot comment on his plan until they read it.
    "It's terrific," Steve Capra, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said Sunday after hearing about Richardson's plan.
    "What the governor's done is shown the BLM how to do their job," Capra said. "What the governor's done is develop a model that protects the integrity of the land."
    Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said some of the measures in the governor's plan would be almost impossible to meet and could make drilling economically infeasible.
    "A lot of it sounds good when you look at it on paper, but I don't believe it affords any protection in reality," he said.
    The BLM plan, which the agency considers the most restrictive its ever developed, already does enough to protect Otero Mesa, Gallagher added.
    Richardson is calling on the BLM to give the public a chance to comment on his alternative plan and hold public meetings in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. He also wants Congress to create a 643,754-acre National Conservation Area, which would offer more stringent regulation of drilling.
    Richardson's review— which Prukop expects to become a national model for its comprehensiveness— says the BLM takes a "cavalier attitude" toward protecting ground water under Otero Mesa despite acknowledging aquifers there are highly vulnerable to contamination from surface water discharges.
    The governor says the BLM plan is also inconsistent with state game management plans, the Noxious Weed Management Act, the state Water Plan, water quality regulations, Oil Conservation Division rules and the state Cultural Properties Act.
    In addition, he says it is inconsistent with an executive order he signed Jan. 31, directing state agencies to protect Otero Mesa. Prukop acknowledged that the order came after the BLM released its plan.
    Richardson's plan is very similar to an alternative the BLM considered but rejected in its initial draft assessment, Prukop said.
    In the areas open to development but with restrictions, drillers would have to:
  • Time operations to avoid windy seasons to minimize erosion and to avoid animal calving and fawning;
  • Drill from only one spot for every 1,440 acres, putting up to nine wells on each pad;
  • Use only electric compressors and pump motors, as opposed to oil- or gas-powered machinery, to reduce noise, and install power lines underground;
  • Clean all equipment before it is moved to prevent the spread of noxious weeds, something Prukop said is done in other states;
  • Take special measures to protect ground water from contamination and use no water wells or disposal pits for drilling waste.
        Requiring directional drilling— wells drilled at an angle instead of straight down— and related measures would reduce the total surface disturbance in the area by almost 82 percent while increasing the probable cost of some wells from about $431,000 to $542,000, according to the review.