New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has appealed a decision by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow oil and gas drilling on the state’s Otero Mesa desert, which he said would impact groundwater and grassland. If the plan is not scrubbed, he said the state will consider legal action.

In the appeal, Richardson charged that the agency had failed to consider the cumulative impacts of drilling, and said it would threaten New Mexico’s groundwater. The appeal also said that the plan threatens to disrupt one of the largest remaining pieces of Chihuahuan desert grasslands. Richardson’s support to protect the Otero Mesa has been long standing. In January, he signed an executive order directing “all relevant New Mexico state agencies to provide support for the utmost protection of the Otero Mesa and Nutt grasslands as a matter of state policy.”

Richardson’s appeal followed the release of a new report this month that claims that the BLM plan would risk groundwater contamination. Steve Finch, senior geochemist and hydrologist at John Shomaker & Associates Inc. in Albuquerque, wrote a study that was commissioned by two environmental groups that oppose the drilling, the Otero Mesa Coalition and the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands.

“The water supply beneath Otero Mesa is potentially vulnerable to contamination from the proposed oil and gas development the BLM plan would permit,” Finch told the Albuquerque Journal. He concluded the danger is high because the aquifer below Otero Mesa is fractured and porous and because existing water supply wells are near areas in which the BLM plans to allow drilling.

In March, the environmental groups claimed that the drilling plan was favored by the Bush administration because of GOP contributions from a New Mexico producer that would benefit (see Daily GPI, March 9). The BLM plan, said the groups, favors Yates Petroleum and the Yates family, which donated $250,000 to GOP groups over the last three years, including $90,000 in soft money directly to the Republican National Committee. Yates Petroleum and the BLM have denied the allegations, maintaining that no more than 5% of the disputed surface area or 2,400 acres out of 1.1 million acres will be disturbed.

According to an Associated Press report last month, Otero Mesa also isn’t the only location Yates Petroleum has targeted for exploration. The AP found that Yates, in fact, is the largest federal leaseholder in the western states, including massive amounts of acreage in Colorado, and Wyoming.

His statement was echoed by Joanna Prukop, New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources secretary. She told the Wall Street Journal that she believes BLM favors drilling because of strong prejudice. “I personally feel that they are under significant pressure from Washington, specifically the White House, to develop oil and gas resources in the Rocky Mountain West,” she told the newspaper.

In May, BLM issued a supplement to its Proposed Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) for fluid mineral leasing in Otero and Sierra counties, which proposes to close federal fluid mineral leasing on 35,790 acres in the Nutt and Otero Mesa desert to protect potential habitat for the Aplomado falcon.

In the Proposed RMPA, three areas were to be withheld from leasing for five years until the impacts of nearby drilling activity within the grasslands could be analyzed. The supplement proposes to permanently close these areas and provides further explanation of protective measures in the proposed action alternative in the RMPA; it also explains changes made from the draft proposal to the final proposal.

When the proposed RMPA was filed, Linda S.C. Rundell, state director for the BLM in New Mexico, said, “It’s our hope that the additional information in the supplement will provide the public with a better understanding of our proposed RMP Amendment. BLM has developed one of the most restrictive plans ever written for mineral leasing on public lands. It will protect sensitive natural resources in the two-county area, including Otero Mesa, while allowing a limited amount of oil and gas exploration and development to proceed.”

Public comments on the development plan are being taken by the BLM until June 29, and so far, BLM said it has received more than 3,000 comments. A final decision will be made once the BLM reviews the comments and Richardson’s appeal. Prukop told the Journal that the BLM is required to post the response to Richardson’s appeal in the Federal Register. If the BLM does not respond to Richardson’s concerns, Prukop said the state likely would file a lawsuit.

The complete BLM supplement is available online at

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