Concerns grow as public land protections against extraction could be rolled back
An executive order issued by President Donald Trump in March could rollback regulations intended to prevent some extraction operations near or in national parks, as environmentalists challenge the move as putting private industry over public lands.
The order is part of the current administration's agenda to continue expansion of domestic energy production while reducing preventative regulations.
“It is in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation,” Trump wrote.
“Moreover, the prudent development of these natural resources is essential to ensuring the Nation’s geopolitical security.”
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was tasked with reviewing and possibly rescinding numerous proposed final rules related to extraction and public lands.
The list included a final rule entitled Management of Non-Federal Oil and Gas Rights, created in November 2016 just two months before former-President Barack Obama left office.
It called for restrictions on operations where non-federally-owned mineral rights exist on or near federal properties within the National Park Service, requiring additional documentation and studies to be approved by the federal government.
As of the rule’s publication, there were extraction operations in 12 units within the National Parks Service.
In New Mexico, Aztec Ruins National Monument near Farmington held four operations, the only park in New Mexico where extraction occurs.
And Doug Neighbor, park superintendent at Carlsbad Caverns National Park doesn’t see drilling within the park boundaries, despite the proximity to the Caverns to recently announced parcels for a proposed September oil and gas lease sale to be held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“The BLM will consider all substantive comments received during the public scoping period, to ensure the potential environmental consequences are analyzed in a manner that allows the BLM to make an informed decision about the proposed competitive lease," read a statement from the BLM.
More: Drilling at Carlsbad Caverns: BLM proposes lease sale of land near national park
Neighbor said Carlsbad Caverns is all federally owned, thus protected from oil and gas operations enabled by the executive order.
Only a specific decision of the U.S. Congress could alter the park’s protections, and the industry’s ability to cross federal property lines.
Where private rights do apply to land in the Park Service, Neighbor said nothing will stop extraction.
“Only acts of Congress apply to federal entities, or when federal dollars are spent,” Neighbor said. “There’s no process for us to comment if it’s on private land. They’re just going to drill.”
The NPS can negotiate with the BLM, on the agency’s Resource Management Plan, which partly determines parcels of federally-owned land offered in lease sales to the industry.
Neighbor refused to comment on the negotiations, and where he sees the agency’s priorities.
“My preference is to not comment on that, because we have cooperative agency status with the BLM,” he said. “As such, we get to sit at the table and have discussion on what goes into the Resource Management Plan. It’s not behind closed doors, but there is a process.
“Ultimately, the decision is the BLM’s. They manage the land.”
The parcels are nominated for lease by industry leaders, per BLM records, and spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Robert McEntyre said a balance can be struck between industry and the environment.
“From an industry standpoint, we want to preserve our natural resources,” McEntyre said of using public land for private industry. "There is a balance there.”
He said protection of the environment as development moves forward will rely on BLM requirements and regulations.
“Ultimately, it would be up to the lessees to submit their plans to the BLM before moving forward,” McEntyre said. “As is often the case, we rely on regulatory entities to make sure the areas leased are appropriate.”
What’s at risk?
Extraction operations near the Caverns existed for years.
And environmentalists contend the “encroachment” is an indication of a federal administration putting profits over preserving the Earth.
More: New Mexico State Land Office touts 'record-breaking' year in lease sales
Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, said extraction producers can fail to address the long-term impacts of industrial development, in favor of short-term profits.
“Our main point is we want oil and gas to be good neighbors,” she said. “It means respecting certain boundaries around important public lands, and the impacted communities.”
Feibelman worried that the 71,000 acres proposed for lease in September could have long-term impacts that will remain long after the industry’s next bust.
“Those caverns aren’t going away,” she said. “But oil and gas is cyclical. For people on the ground, this is the same symptom of some people who don’t have a long-term stake in the community.”
New Mexico’s tourism industry, which relies on a multitude of public lands and monuments, could also be in danger during expansions in the extraction industry, she said.
More: Local leaders take to the sky to witness contrast between nature and extraction
“To put these iconic places that keep people coming to town, it just seems crazy to put their attractiveness on the line,” Feibelman said. “Of course, we want to keep people employed, and stimulate the economy, but we also have to protect the lands that keep people coming here.
“Striking that balance is really important.”
But it might not just be between tourism and extraction.
George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institution and president of the International Speleology Union also worried an essential but scarce resource in the desert region could be at risk: water.
Veni said there are already developments in the recharge zones of the Capitan Aquifer, an underground water supply that supports Carlsbad and many surrounding communities – fed by the intricate and un-studied cave system at Carlsbad Caverns.
The Capitan extends to the northern parts of Carlsbad, but as far south as the Guadalupe Mountains.
As extraction developments continue to grow, Veni said the ground water could be at risk of contamination, and the industry must take heed of what is at stake.
“Much of the recharge zone is under protected areas. That’s good in terms of protecting the water quality,” he said. “There’s also a lot of land that is federal. They’re charged with being good stewards, but also with allowing uses.”
Large portions of the cave system are undiscovered, Veni said, but scientists do know it is largely karstic, meaning it formed when soluble rock such as limestone was dissolved by water.
More: What is karst?: Underground formations could tell us why we're here
These formations are susceptible to contamination, and can move water up to a quarter mile per day. That fast flow can cause contaminated water to reach drinking water faster, he said.
“Karst formations are very susceptible to contamination,” Veni said. “The water can flow long distance, very, very quickly. Sometimes, it can take a week to even figure out you have a problem.”
Veni argued protection zones around Sheep's Draw well enacted by the City of Carlsbad are almost useless when it comes to karst, as they do not cover the entire underground formation.
“At those speeds, protection zones are not as helpful,” he said. “The entire karst formation is vulnerable. It’s all important. With karst aquifers, you don’t need to be as close to be a serious impact.”
Veni said there is no agency specifically tasked with managing the Capitan, and the aquifer is overseen indirectly by numerous groups concerned mostly with what’s on the surface.
“There’s no one to watch over the aquifer as a whole,” he said. “That makes it a harder question. No one is taking that big picture view. That makes it harder to manage what the risks are.”
More research is needed, Veni said, for the extraction industry and local stakeholders to really understand the vulnerability of the area’s water supply, and the impacts of development.
“In my view, we don’t understand our aquifer nearly enough. We have a general picture of it, but there’s a lot about how it works that we don’t know,” he said. “It’s not against oil and gas. Dealing with this very vulnerable water supply is just part of life.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.