Ranchers Join Fight To Limit Drilling at Otero Mesa

Albuquerque Journal

]Thursday, July 31, 2003

By Tania Soussan Journal Staff Writer

Otero Mesa ranchers and a group that campaigns to protect private property rights are joining environmentalists in a fight to limit new oil and gas drilling in a remote but highly valued expanse of southern New Mexico.

“What’s right is right,” said G.B. Oliver III, executive vice president of the Paragon Foundation and president of Western Bank in Alamogordo. “Our goal is the same.”

The biologically rich grassland, which could hold significant natural gas reserves, has attracted national attention.

Environmentalists say new drilling and the roads that go along with it would damage one of the last remnants of healthy Chihuahuan Desert grassland in New Mexico and reduce wildlife habitat. Oil and gas drillers have said the BLM’s restrictions would pose an economic hardship.

Directors of Alamogordo-based Paragon, devoted to defending private property rights, voted this week to get involved on behalf of the area ranchers and to work with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. The ranchers and the foundation are mainly concerned with the potential for ground-water contamination and damage to rangeland.

“There’s some areas out there that should be out of the drilling because they’re vulnerable,” said Bob Jones, a rancher with public land leases on Otero Mesa and Paragon Foundation president.

“It’s a matter of survival for all of us,” he said. “If we can’t get them stopped, we’re through. All we get out of it is destruction.”

The ranchers and Paragon are the latest voices that have joined the fight to protect Otero Mesa this year.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has already asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to protect the area from expanded drilling until a significant wilderness area is set aside.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is developing new rules to guide oil and gas development in the area, between Las Cruces and El Paso.

The BLM plans to limit surface disturbance in big chunks of healthy grassland. Only 5 percent of those blocks of land could be occupied by roads, well pads and other facilities at the same time.

Ranchers and the Paragon Foundation don’t want to ban all drilling, Oliver said. They only want the area developed in a way that protects ground water and the land.

“I’m not going to let ’em destroy that,” said Oliver, whose bank has loaned money to Otero Mesa ranchers.

The ranchers have been wary of new oil and gas development for a long time, but recent actions of one company triggered their anger.

Threshold Development Co. of Fort Worth dumped dirty water into a reserve pit at an Otero Mesa site where it plans to begin drilling soon.

The BLM issued a violation notice and ordered the company to remove the water, which it did. But the ranchers say a nasty sludge remains at the bottom of the pit.

“There’s still muck,” said rancher Jonna Lou Shafer. “The black stinky stuff is still in the bottom.”

A test by Sandia National Laboratories found more than seven times the total dissolved solids normally in fresh water and the presence of E. coli and coliform bacteria.

The president and land manager for Threshold were out of town Wednesday and no one else at the company could comment.

The well pad and pit are on Shafer’s BLM allotment on Crow Flat, about 28 miles northeast of Dell City.

Shafer said she wants Threshold to pump out the remaining sludge and install a new liner. She said she’s also worried about soil contamination because the company was dumping water on the pad site and dirt road.

The ranchers are considering blockading the road to the well site to prevent Threshold from moving in a drilling rig until it finishes cleaning up the sludge, Oliver said.



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Coalition for Otero Mesa
Phone: (505) 843-8696 | Fax: (505) 843-8697
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Contact us for more information about the Coalition for Otero Mesa, oil & gas development, or the ongoing effort to protect the last wild lands and open spaces in New Mexico.