New Mexico Won’t Go Down Without a Fight Over Drilling

Times Staff Writer

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson raised the ante Friday in his battle to protect a rare desert grassland by announcing the state had filed suit to stop the Bush administration from allowing oil and gas drilling on Otero Mesa, a lonely stretch of federal land near the Texas border.

Richardson, who was secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, charges that drilling would destroy archeological treasures, diminish wildlife habitat and contaminate an aquifer that contains the state’s largest untapped source of fresh water.

Richardson announced the lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management at an Albuquerque news conference. He was joined by a group of ranchers, hunters and local land owners who said they feared the loss of traditional activities such as cattle grazing and hunting if drilling was allowed.

“I am going to do everything I can to put rules in place to adversely affect their development -- everything the state can possibly do to slow this down,” Richardson, a Democrat, said in a telephone interview. “There are many treasures at Otero Mesa, but we are absolutely concerned about the contamination of groundwater.”


The 1.8-million-acre mesa is owned largely by the federal government, but the state controls the underlying water.

Last year Richardson signed an executive order making it state policy to protect and preserve Otero Mesa. The state filed a protest against the BLM’s management plan, and Richardson proposed a compromise that would allow some drilling while placing about 75% of the mesa off-limits to energy exploration and creating a 640,000-acre national conservation area.

“The BLM totally disregarded my proposal,” Richardson said. “There is no balance and no regard for ranchers or hunters.”

The BLM’s drilling plan, issued in its final form in January, is smaller in scope than originally contemplated but much larger than what Richardson indicated he would support. It allows drilling up to 141 exploratory wells across 95% of Otero Mesa.


The decision sets aside 36,000 acres as habitat for the endangered Aplomado falcon and forbids energy leasing in wilderness study areas and other protected places. In total, the plan prohibits drilling on 124,000 acres in Sierra and Otero counties.

Although there are some existing drilling leases in the area -- including some 80,000 acres of state land -- no new leases have been offered yet.

“It is the most restrictive plan of oil and gas development the BLM has ever issued,” said Hans Stuart, spokesman for the agency’s New Mexico office. “We are very confident that we have followed every procedure and every legal requirement to the letter. We are confident that it’s a balanced plan that will protect the resources of Otero Mesa.”

The rugged and rocky desert west of Carlsbad is home to herds of pronghorn antelope, migratory songbirds and countless Indian petroglyphs. The area has the nation’s largest swath of black gramma grass, a lush, difficult-to-establish plant that has no commercially available seed.


Rick Simpson, a New Mexico native and chairman of the neighboring Lincoln County Commission, worried about the effect of the proposed energy development.

“Scars like this on the landscape don’t last for a few years -- they last for a few generations,” Simpson said in an interview. “Right now it’s just like God made it. It would just break my heart if it gets cut up with roads and destruction like all these other areas.”

The governor’s action underscores a growing concern among officials in Western states who want more say in how federal lands are managed in their areas.

“The federal government is trying to impose its will on the state,” said New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid. “I have a message for the federal government: Not on our watch. We will fight the federal government’s plan.”