More land was set for sale to the oil and gas industry in southeast New Mexico as land managers looked to retool federal rules to prioritize conservation throughout the U.S.
The Bureau of Land Management announced a public comment period for its November lease sale in southeast New Mexico, offering about 434 acres on six parcels in Eddy and Lea counties, along with 162 acres on five parcels in Pittsburg and Wood counties.
The public comment period runs until June 15, 2023, allowing the public to give input on an environmental assessment release Tuesday.
The BLM reported “no significant impact” was expected to the surrounding environment or communities if the lands in New Mexico were ultimately leased and operated by the oil and gas industry.
The finding reported the land would host six horizontal wells, disturbing about 27 acres of the surface and production about 1 million barrels of oil and about 5.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
“Within these counties, as well as the area immediately surrounding the nominated lease parcels, extensive oil and gas development and production already exists,” read the report. “Oil and gas development and its attendant industry are identifiable components of the economic and social fabric of the region.”
But conservationists argued continual oil and gas operations throughout New Mexico could risk sensitive wildlife and other natural resources.
That’s why the BLM proposed in March a rule that would see the agency prioritize conservation in its future planning, including proposed areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) that would be closed to development and offering “conservation leases” to allow federal lands to be set aside.
The proposal initiated a 75-day comment period closing on June 20 after a series of public meetings both virtual and in person with one in Albuquerque planned for June 1 and the last virtual meeting scheduled for June 5.
It was cheered by conservation groups who said the policy would help the federal government improve its conservation efforts, balancing such land uses with industries like oil and gas and agriculture.
Michael Carroll with The Wilderness Society said New Mexico had especially seen the impacts of extreme weather events he said were exacerbated by a lack of conservation of federal land.
“Ground zero for that has been New Mexico in recent years,” he said. “They (BLM) need to live up to the mission and prioritize conservation.
Carroll argued the BLM was mandated to fulfill a “multi-use” philosophy when managing public land owned by taxpayers, but in recent decades had prioritized industries at the expense of broad swaths of the state’s wildlife and landscape.
That could change with the BLM’s proposal, he said.
“We always felt like they weren’t living up to their mission, weren’t prioritizing conservation. This really requires them to live up to it,” Carroll said. “It elevates conservation to be at a level playing field with all the other uses on public land.”
Conservation leases will function as easements on public land, and will be voluntary, which Carroll said should allay concerns the leases will compete with other industry uses like grazing or fossil fuel extraction.
“All valid and existing rights there before, they’re not trumped by conservation leases,” he said. “This is a tool for mitigation and restoration only.”
What it does mean, he said, is that regional land managers will have to include conservation in their future planning, working to keep habitats connected to one another and healthy amid development.
“The rule does not override any oil and gas leases or management around oil and gas. It just says to local managers that they need to prioritize conservation when in planning to manage the land,” Carroll said. “It clarifies very clearly that conservation needs to be elevated.”
Bjorn Fredrickson with Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians said the rules would also prioritize ACECs proposed but not acted on throughout New Mexico.
The ACECs are contained in resource management plans (RMPs) that often take years, even decades to update, Fredrickson said, meaning policy dictating the land is often decades old and out of date for current needs.
But the BLM’s proposal would allow for interim protections while RMPs and updated ACECs are considered, allowing the agency to protect habitats and other natural resources as the process continues.
“There are some targeted places that are not appropriate for development. BLM can put those protections in place if this rule is finalized,” Fredrickson said. “That could help create that balance between conservation and development.”
There are several in the southeast region, he said, in a region known for heavy oil and gas production but also ecologically diverse and environmentally sensitive.
He said the ACECs could also help protect cultural resources, such as in northwest New Mexico where efforts were underway to insulate from the development the Chaco Canyon area sacred to the nearby Navajo Nation.
In the Chihuahuan Desert in southeast New Mexico, along the Texas border, the Otero Mesa between Las Cruces and Carlsbad contains thousands of locations of indigenous rock art, along diverse bird species and pronghorn antelope.
It’s a popular area for sportsmen and hunting, Fredrickson said, and is also known for sensitive freshwater aquifers, a resource scarce in the increasing arid state.
“It’s important to protect these ecosystems for the sake of biodiversity,” he said. “We have some work to do to ensure we protect wildlife and biodiversity during a changing climate.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the proposal would better help the federal government respond to climate change and intensifying weather events like floods and wildfires, which struck New Mexico in record-breaking numbers last year.
The biggest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire burned more than 340,000 acres in the northern part of the state last spring, leading to evacuation and damage to local infrastructure.
Haaland said more can be done at the policy level to prevent future devastation.
“As the nation continues to face unprecedented drought, increasing wildfires and the declining health of our landscapes, our public lands are under growing pressure,” she said.
“It is our responsibility to use the best tools available to restore wildlife habitat, plan for smart development, and conserve the most important places for the benefit of the generations to come.”
In public comments submitted May 8, the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association asked the BLM to extend the 75-day comment period, arguing conservation was already part of any use of public land and that the proposal could conflict with federal grazing laws.
“Conservation has always been linked to other uses of the land. Now, BLM is proposing this use it be its own category,” read the comments signed by Association President Loren Patterson. “Adding conservation as a new use on federally administered lands is a significant change. Affected entities need time to study and understand how the change will affect them.”