With New Mexico state leaders on record as strongly opposed, a long federal review process is now under way on Houston-based El Paso Corp.’s plans to drill for coal-bed methane in a pristine national forest region in the north-northeast part of the state. Even with political help from the White House, El Paso has indicated in some local news reports that it may not be interested in pursuing drilling leases.

As a result, New Mexico’s resources secretary indicated in an interview with NGI last Thursday that it has no stalemate with the Bush Administration on the issue at this point because the regulatory process is in its very early stages of what could take several years, even if El Paso decides to press the case.

At stake is part of 100,000 acres called Valle Vidal in the much larger, older Carson National Forest that the state views as prime natural preserve for recreation and hunting as well as breeding by elk herds. Directly east of Valle Vidal is the prime coal-bed methane area for El Paso in the Raton Basin.

“To put things in the proper process, they (federal government) would first have to amend the forest plan, and then complete an Environmental Impact Statement to see what issues would be raised by oil/gas drilling on the Valle Vidal,” said Joanna Prukop, New Mexico’s secretary for energy, minerals and natural resources in Gov. Bill Richardson’s cabinet. “The planning process will take a year to 18 months, and the EIS would likely take that much time or up to two years.”

Earlier in the year, an energy task force set up by the Bush Administration over-rode U.S. Forest Service opposition, according to a front-page report in the Los Angeles Times last month. El Paso’s still uncertain plans were given a political boost, so Prukop said the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election could have an impact.

“The upcoming national election will certainly have a bearing on this matter in terms of how quickly and whether there is ever drilling for coal-bed methane on the Valle Vidal,” Prukop said. “So I think the politics is certainly playing a role in all of this, and I think we have to see how some of it plays out in the Presidential election.”

With its heavy economic and energy interests in both natural gas and coal – not to mention a more recent push for renewable development — New Mexico is pushing a theme of “environmentally responsible drilling” that Richardson, the former Clinton Administration energy czar, and his cabinet secretary Prukop are aggressively promoting.

New Mexico subscribes to either the Bureau of Land Management or Western Governors’ Association manuals on “best practices on drilling.” Among the criteria are:

“And a whole variety of other environmental considerations that historically were not even considered, much less implemented, in the past,” said Prukop, who thinks there is a “significant gap” between her outlook on forestalling the day when we “hit the wall” with the depletion of fossil fuels and those of the Bush Administration.

“We think there needs to be a balance between careful development of our fossil fuels, coupled with aggressive development of renewable energy technology,” she said. “Just as fossil fuels have been subsidized in this country, renewables deserve subsidies, too.”

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