Steve Capra  /  New Mexico Wilderness Alliance via AP file
The Otero Mesa, part of it seen here, is a large desert grassland in New Mexico.
updated 3/22/2004 12:16:07 PM ET 2004-03-22T17:16:07

An oil man gazes out over the vast New Mexico grasslands known as Otero Mesa and envisions a pipeline linking wells that produce clean-burning natural gas and keep fuel prices down.

An ecologist sees a unique ecosystem that is home to hundreds of species of animals and plants, and he wants it to stay that way.

What happens next is up to the federal government, and officials are getting plenty of input from people like oil and gas producer George Yates and grasslands expert Walter Whitford, turning this stretch of high desert into a battlefield for broader questions about oil and gas drilling on public lands across the country.

Management plan revised
The Bush administration has pushed for increased development, notably in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democratic candidates campaigning in New Mexico earlier this year all pledged greater protection for the mesa, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson described it as “sacred.”

Energy map of AmericaDotted with cholla cactus and yucca and grazed by antelope, Otero Mesa is an hour’s drive east of El Paso, Texas. The mesa covers roughly 2 million acres of Chihuahua desert grassland, extending about 40 miles north of the Texas-New Mexico line.

In 1998, a test well drilled by Yates’ company indicated enough natural gas reserves to justify a pipeline, and a rush on drilling permits began.

That prompted the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land, to revise the area’s 1986 management plan. The revision is expected to be finalized in May or June by the state BLM director.

The plan would allow drilling of 140 test wells, with 84 going into production. It would close about 88,000 acres to leasing and temporarily close another 35,800 of potential wildlife habitat while the effects of development are evaluated.

The land bureau, which is bound by a multiple-use mandate, says the proposal provides more protection than the old plan by limiting the overall amount of disturbance as well as on some of the leased plots.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton called it “the most restrictive fluid minerals plan ever developed by the Bureau of Land Management.”

Linda Rundell, the land bureau’s state director, said she doesn’t see the mesa ever being a big gas and oil producer. On the roughly 70,000 acres of federal land in the area that has been leased for oil and gas development, there are now only two successful wells.

“We’re talking about something, to us, that seems like small potatoes,” she said.

Two takes
No one seems to be happy, and there are whispers of political influence.

Yates — president of the Roswell-based Harvey E. Yates Co., known as HEYCO — says the proposed rules are too restrictive and will “retard development of the area.”

Fueling the futureHe argues that the area is anything but pristine, having been grazed and prospected for many years, and that natural gas drilling is one of the least destructive fuel-extraction methods.

“I do not buy the argument that the land can’t be reclaimed after the exploration process,” Yates said.

Whitford, a professor emeritus at New Mexico State University who has studied area grasslands for 40 years, says the digging and scraping required for development won’t heal easily and could provide a toehold for exotic plant species.

Otero Mesa has the nation’s largest contiguous patch of black gramma grass, which isn’t available as a commercial seed and takes decades to re-establish itself. The area is also unique for its lack of mesquite, thanks to a stony crust about a foot beneath the topsoil that blocks the taproots of mesquite and other invaders.

Whitford is concerned that digging for pipelines will crack the crust, letting in new plants and changing the food and habitat for the animals.

Politics raised
Environmental groups and New Mexico state officials are threatening legal action if the plan is approved without changes.

High-stakes, high-tech drillingThey claim politics has polluted the process, saying protections in the land bureau’s initial draft were weakened after the 2000 presidential election and noting that Yates’ company made more than $200,000 in GOP donations. Yates also hosted a GOP fundraiser attended by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002.

Norton said administration officials in Washington, D.C., were not involved in creating the plan. Land bureau officials say the changes were made in response to public comment.

“A lot of criticism has been directed that Washington has been directing this,” bureau spokesman Hans Stewart said, “and it’s not true.”

Yates says if he were trying to sway opinion, he would be contributing to Democrats. He also said he has never discussed drilling on Otero Mesa with Cheney.

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