Otero Mesa is a roughly two million-acre section of public land in southeast New Mexico that covers Otero and Sierra Counties. Natural gas was discovered on a parcel leased by Harvey E. Yates Corporation (HEYCO Energy Group) in 1997. Before HEYCO could develop the resource the Bureau of Land Management placed a moratorium on drilling. The BLM believed that the White Sands Resource Management Plan was insufficient to ensure proper resource development. Over the next six years the BLM developed a new resource management plan (RMP) with the input of local communities, ranchers, Indian tribes and other interested parties. In the end, the BLM created the most restrictive RMP in its history with an unprecedented number of restrictions and oversight.
Governor Bill Richardson and a number of activist groups believe the plan is still not restrictive enough. Richardson proposed a counter plan to the BLM with even more stringent restrictions, but that proposal was rejected.
On Earth Day 2005 Governor Richardson announced the filing of a lawsuit against the BLM to prevent drilling. Attorney General Patricia Madrid said, "I have a message for the federal government and the Bush Administration: 'Not on our watch.'" Governor Richardson had previously said if drilling was approved he would fight the BLM "tooth and nail." BLM State Director Linda Rundell called the lawsuit "frivolous." Senator Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said it was hard not to see the lawsuit as "pure Earth Day posturing" by Richardson and Madrid.
The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico then announced that it would intervene on behalf of the BLM along with the Mountain States Legal Foundation. In July of 2005 State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons announced that the State Land Office would also intervene on behalf of the BLM, creating a situation that pits the Governor, the State Attorney General and activist groups against the BLM, the State Land Office and the oil and natural gas industry. On July 21, 2005 the first lease under the new RMP went up for bid. HEYCO secured the lease with a minimum bid of $2 an acre.
CARE believes that the BLM has extensively studied and analyzed this issue beyond what would be considered due diligence. In fact, CARE's position is that the BLM has gone too far in its restrictions, unnecessarily hampering the responsible development of energy resources on Otero Mesa. No one yet knows if a significant amount of natural gas lies beneath Otero Mesa or not. It might be a small amount, making the entire issue much more about rhetoric than about the important priority of energy development. However, if Otero Mesa does possess a significant amount of natural gas, the small number of wells permitted on the land will not be sufficient to harvest the energy. In this scenario the losers will be the people of New Mexico and the United States. There is also an issue of property rights, something that is critical to democracy. CARE believes it is unfair and probably unconstitutional for the federal government to sell mineral rights to an energy company and then unduly delay the company's right to exercise those property rights.
- The landmass "Otero Mesa" is comprised of approximately two million acres in Otero and Sierra Counties
- Natural gas was discovered by HEYCO Energy Group in 1997
- HEYCO bought its first Otero Mesa lease in 1987 and over the past 18 years HEYCO CEO George Yates says his company has invested about 4 million dollars on the land that have not produced any return
- The BLM stopped HEYCO's exploration until a new RMP could be developed, the process taking six years
- The BLM's RMP was developed with input from local communities, ranchers and Indian tribes
- Bordering Otero Mesa is the Macgregor Bombing range
- The RMP for Otero Mesa is the most restrictive in BLM history
- A maximum of 141 exploratory wells are allowed
- A maximum of 84 producing wells are allowed
- A maximum of less than one-tenth of one-percent of the total land surface may be disturbed
- The RMP allows for a maximum surface disturbance of 1,589 acres in the short term and 860 acres in the long term
- More than 124,000 acres are completely off limits to development
- The number of acres off limits outnumber the number of acres that could be disturbed by a ratio of 78 to 1
- The RMP contains the strictest reclamation stipulations on record
- No more than 5% of the Gamma grasslands may be disturbed at any one time
- Lease holders must work together to eliminate duplication of wells, pipelines and roads
- Mature native grasses must be established and self-sustaining on a lease before it is considered reclaimed
- Regulations by the state Oil Conservation Division require that wells be drilled using a "closed-loop" system, which contains drilling fluids within steel tanks-a process that is far more expensive than traditional methods and is more difficult for oil field workers to safely control
- Approximately 100,000 acres of Otero Mesa contain Chihuahuan desert grassland
- Otero Mesa may contain large fresh water reserves
- National environmental groups have targeted Otero Mesa as one of several places to take a highly public stand against domestic energy development
Governor Bill Richardson and environmental groups claim that energy development of Otero Mesa will unnecessarily endanger the Chihuahuan grasslands and the fresh water aquifer beneath the Mesa. They claim that the BLM's RMP, while it sets a new precedent of restrictions, is not restrictive enough. They believe that whatever natural gas may be found underneath the Mesa is not worth the surface impacts to the land and the potential for groundwater contamination.
Conversely, the oil and natural gas industry maintains that Otero Mesa's energy resources can be safely and responsibly developed with a minimum impact to the land. They also point out that the BLM RMP guarantees that all surface disturbances will be completely reclaimed (returned to a natural state) when development activities are completed. Some observers claim that environmental groups will oppose any development that is proposed for a new area. The consistent number of lawsuits that follow new energy development would seem to confirm this to be true.
Other observers, including Senator Pete Domenici, believe Richardson, a former Energy Secretary, is well aware that the demand for oil and natural gas will continue to rise significantly over the next two decades, and that he is simply using Otero Mesa as a tool for political gain. The Governor claims he is merely protecting the natural heritage of the state, and that the BLM is acting irresponsibly.