BLM Could Leave Key New Mexico Wildlands Open to Energy Development

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published the draft environmental review for a plan that determines how it will manage nearly 2.8 million acres of public lands in three large counties in southern New Mexico, including the beautiful Otero Mesa grasslands.  Unfortunately, the BLM's preferred alternative would leave much of the region vulnerable to oil and natural gas drilling, including areas identified by conservation groups as needing protection.  According to the Wilderness Society:
"The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has identified more than 700,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics in the tri-county area; yet BLM only found 11,917 acres as meeting the criteria to be considered lands with wilderness characteristics and only proposed to protect 803 acres." -the Wilderness Society
Indecision on Oil and Gas Prompts Uncertainty
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that the BLM's land use plan would defer a decision on how to handle oil and gas drilling on millions of acres of desert and grasslands until it figures out how to respond to a 2005 court order.  This means that the land use plan will be amended later, and that amendment will have significant consequences for the conservation of wildlife and wildlands because oil and gas drilling has the potential to alter the character of a sizable swath of the region.

According to the BLM environmental review, existing oil and gas leases will be managed according to current regulations; the overall planning area currently has multiple existing oil and gas leases pending development.  Although the planning area has "low to moderate" oil and gas resources, it is probably safe to assume that industry will soon turn its attention to developing these existing leases - and more - once wells in other states and regions run dry.  These existing leases alone would convert over 70 square miles of grasslands and desert into an industrial zone carved up by roads and well pads.
"As of August 2011, there were 40 oil and gas leases totaling approximately 50,190 acres in the Decision Area and none of these leases were in production at that time. These numbers include 21 leases in Otero County totaling 14,110 acres and one pending lease of 1,600 acres; and 19 leases in Doña Ana County totaling 29,582 acres northwest of Las Cruces and near the International border west of Santa Teresa." -BLM Draft EIS
BLM Setting Up Battle Over Otero Mesa
Although the BLM's preferred alternative would designate an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) over the public lands in Otero Mesa - the last and largest intact Chihuahua Desert grasslands in the United States - the alternative would still allow mining claims in the Otero Mesa ACEC.  Some ACECs in the BLM preferred alternative would be closed to oil and gas drilling, regardless of the outcome of the deferred oil and gas decision that will impact other lands in the planning area.  But not the Otero Mesa ACEC.  The BLM's preferred alternative does not close the Otero ACEC to oil and gas development, suggesting BLM is setting itself up to offer a compromise to the oil and gas industry.  The oil and gas industry has been pressuring BLM to maintain the Otero region open for development, according to a letter submitted by the Western Energy Alliance.

Until the BLM makes a decision on oil and gas development, we will not know how much of the Otero Mesa will be exposed to drilling, but the fact that the BLM decided not to close the ACEC to drilling in this draft plan suggests at least some of the area remains on the chopping block despite a groundswell of support for a monument proposal there.

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