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BLM delays sale of land for oil drilling near Carlsbad Caverns, amid protests
Fracking has been the subject of much debate. But before your form an opinion on the subject, first consider the process. USA TODAY, 2012
The development of oil and gas operations near the Carlsbad Caverns National Park was delayed, as several parcels near the park’s boundaries were deferred from the Bureau of Land Management’s September industry lease sale.
The BLM’s final proposal for the sale, published on July 23, listed 31 parcels for deferral of the 197 nominated for sale, citing concerns related to the parcels’ proximity to the caverns and the underground aquifers that supply Carlsbad’s drinking water.
The cave system, with numerous fragile karst formations is connected to the Capitan Reef aquifer, and BLM officials with the Pecos District office worried oil and gas production could damage the system that extends beyond the boundaries of the park.
“A number of the parcels proposed for deferral under the Alternative B are thought to be connected to City of Carlsbad’s primary drinking water supply, the Capitan Aquifer, by way of a permeable cave and karst system,” read the proposal.
“Moreover, a subset of parcels are also within the boundary of the City of Carlsbad’s Water Supply Field, an area that contains wells used to pump groundwater from the Capitan Aquifer.”
Some of the parcels were within a mile of the national park boundaries, records show, and environmental groups voiced concerns that the parcels for lease were imposing on the natural landforms that made Carlsbad famous.
“Another subset of parcels proposed for deferral under Alternative B are located on cave or karst features and or lie within a mile of Carlsbad Caverns National Park,” read the proposal.
“Under Alternative B, 31 parcels that are known to occur on cave and karst would be deferred from leasing. Thus, potential impacts to cave and karst features within these 31 parcels would be avoided under this alternative.”
But some environmentalists are unconvinced the move will protect the Caverns.
The Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based advocacy group erected a billboard near the entrance to the national park as of Wednesday urging oil drillers to stay out of the area.
“Wish you weren’t drilling here!” read the sign, which also listed a website: dontdrillourparks.org.
The signage was part of a national campaign created by the Center that will see similar billboards set up near Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, where other lease sales could threaten public lands.
The website lists other national parks and monuments considered "at risk," and solicited the public to submit any other lands that could be targeted by the campaign.
Spokesman for the center Andre Miller said the sign was intended to send a message to elected officials, and alert the public of the potential encroachment of oil and gas operations on national parks.
“It’s good they deferred as of last Monday,” he said. “But until (the parcels) are formally withdrawn, they’re still a threat. They could reappear in a later sale, so we consider them a threat.”
Miller questioned if the BLM did enough research to derive the potential impacts of the operations near the national park and underground cave system.
Much of the system is yet undiscovered, but is connected to the city’s water table, he said, meaning experts do not know the extent of the its vulnerability.
“The BLM hasn’t had enough time to flesh out the impacts drilling could have on that cave system, and water supplies,” Miller said.
Aside from drinking water, Miller said operations that close to the park could inhibit visitation, and such a proposal suggested the BLM is looking out for industry concerns, not those of the American people.
“Some places are too special to drill,” he said. “If these leases did happen it would impact visitors.”
The Department of Interior — the parent agency of BLM — has recently showed a disregard for public input on lease sales, Miller said.
He pointed to public comment periods shortened from 30 to 10 days, while the BLM was required to hold quarterly lease sales, even nominating parcels itself if the industry did not.
“The administration had done a number of things to cut out the public,” Miller said. “(The original proposal) says (the BLM) is catering to oil and gas companies and not considering the greater impact to the American public.”
To Doug Neighbor, superintendent at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, that impact could mean light, air and sound pollution.
He said visitors to the park at night often mistake nearby oil and gas developments with the City of Carlsbad.
Such proximity, Neighbor said, could ruin the viewshed of the park.
“I had some concerns,” he said of the initial proposed sale. “At night it already looks like there’s a city out there. It’s a visual intrusion for our dark sky.”
Neighbor said most of the parcels proposed near the park – some within a half mile of the park’s boundary – surrounded the Rattlesnake Springs area, which provides water to the park itself.
He said the NPS works closely with the BLM to address these concerns, and develop the federal agency’s Carlsbad Resource Management Plan (RMP).
“I look at proximity,” Neighbor said. “If it’s within five miles, I may talk about it in my response. When I see these, I comment. We let them know what the impact could have at the park.
“It’s my responsibility to ensure our resources are unimpaired for future generations, that there’s no degradation that cannot be restored.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.