Otero Mesa in drillers' crosshairs
To drill or not to drill? As rising gasoline prices make consumers increasingly aware of energy issues, that's the question for environmentally sensitive areas across the West.
In New Mexico, the crosshairs are zeroed on Otero Mesa, a scenic 1.2 million-acre expanse of yuccas, cholla cactus and knee-high gramma grass.
Recreational options include primitive camping, wildlife viewing, photography, horseback riding or hiking. There are pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls, prairie dogs, aplomado falcons, deer, oryx, coyotes, jackrabbits and quail.
"On the grasslands, there are particular species and different animal life that just doesn't exist anywhere else," said Deanna Archuleta, Southwest regional director for The Wilderness Society.
Otero Mesa still has rutted sections of the 1860s-era Butterfield Trail stagecoach route and a massive underground reservoir that could be tapped to supply fresh water to southern New Mexico communities.
Drilling opponents warn that groundwater could be contaminated by oil and gas production, but others insist technological advances allow extraction of petroleum or gas without harming the aquifer.
"The drilling technology makes the risk reasonable. The chances of contamination are very, very small," said Bill Childress, director of the Bureau of Land Management's district office in Las Cruces.
This isn't exactly virgin wilderness, either.
Decades of access and development are evident, including a web of roads, scattered wells and a communications tower that rises over the grasslands. There are pipelines for exporting natural gas and oil.
Still, The Wilderness Society listed Otero Mesa among 17 locations in eight Western states that the group says are threatened by plans for drilling. Each is documented in a 2006 report, "Too Wild to Drill."
Along with Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, other sites include the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming, Utah's Red Rock Wilderness, Carrizo Plains National Monument in California and Colorado's Roan Plateau and Vermillion Basin.
High-profile public lands, according to The Wilderness Society, are in immediate danger from drilling proposals. Group members worry about roads, drill pads and staging areas that accompany oil and gas production.
"Given the current pressure to drill domestically, the risk is the biggest it's ever been," Archuleta said. "At Otero Mesa, it's a threat to the aquifer, to wildlife and to the landscape."
Yet high gasoline costs apparently are swinging public opinion in favor of drilling. A July 1 poll by the Pew Research Center showed a significant change during a five-month span on the drilling question.
The number of those polled who said they considered increasing energy supplies more important than protecting the environment climbed from 54 percent in February to 60 percent over the five-month span, according to the poll. The number who favor oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge also increased.
After a one-hour drive east from El Paso, Texas, a cattle guard at the Texas-New Mexico border marks the southern boundary of Otero Mesa.
Glance at a map, and it's a checkerboard of federal, state and private lands. There are remote ranches that have been managed by families for generations. Cattle graze on the grasses or collect at stock tanks.
The area also has an 80-year history of drilling. One well, dating to 1929, is located along a graded road, identifiable by a rusty pipe that extends skyward from a mound of concrete in the ground.
Two modern gas wells — one drilled in 1997, the other in 2001 — were leased before a BLM resource management plan was drafted in 2005.
Compared with the surrounding landscape, the roughly three-acre sites are visibly different. Gravel has replaced topsoil that was removed for drilling operations. Childress said both locations will have to be restored.
"These wells have gas in them," Childress said. "How much gas is anyone's guess."
Indeed, Otero Mesa is what those in the oil business call a wildcatter area, meaning the wells are exploratory and reserves are undetermined.
The BLM has proposed leases for 13,000 acres on Otero Mesa. Most are for 10 years, through terms can lengthen if a well produces. The current proposal allows drilling on a maximum 1,589 acres.
Archuleta said the policy is shortsighted and won't produce an immediate reduction in gasoline prices. Echoing a sentiment expressed by numerous environmental groups, she said oil companies already have enough wells on public lands elsewhere.
"If we think that's going to save us from $4 gas, we're dreaming," she said.
That BLM's plan was controversial, with diverse groups that included sportsmen, ranchers, environmentalists and state agencies urging stronger protections.
Gov. Bill Richardson, supporting an effort by a group called Coalition for Otero Mesa, asked the BLM to designate 500,000 acres of grasslands as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
"This type of designation would provide another way to protect the area's wildlife habitat, wilderness characteristics and critical groundwater supply, focusing on the importance of this thriving desert ecosystem," Richardson said.
However, there already are numerous areas designated as ACEC that are protected from drilling, including scenic buttes at Alamo Mountain, Cornudas Mountain and Wind Mountain, along with several grassland sites.
Childress, whose office is responsible for oversight of Otero Mesa, noted the agency's mandate is to open the land and oversee it for all interested parties, including oil companies.
Childress defended the BLM proposal, saying no more than 5 percent of grasslands can be disturbed at any time and sites must be remediated to help disturbed soil and plants grow back.
While up to 90 percent of BLM lands are open to drilling under the plan, Childress said only 800 to 900 acres of Otero Mesa's 1.2 million would be permanently disturbed by roads, footpads and other drilling-related activities.
"I think that's a pretty reasonable percentage," he said.