Federal agency to host meetings throughout southeast New Mexico.

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Balancing the economic development of extraction industries with preservation of natural resources and public lands was the focal point of the Bureau of Land Management Carlsbad Field Office’s revision of its resource management plan to manage millions of acres of federal land in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties.

The drafted plan, as presented at a public meeting held Monday at the Pecos River Village Conference Center, contained five alternatives including a “no action” version that would make no changes to the current RMP approved in 1988 and subsequently amended last in 2008.

Alternative A would focus on watershed management above all else, while Alternative B would geographically separate uses such as extraction and recreation.

More: BLM Resource Management Plan: What you need to know about the proposed alternatives

Alternative D focused on supporting private industry, while C – also identified as the BLM’s preferred option – took a multi-use approach.

“It takes some of the drive toward development of economic resources here, but also provides conservation of resources,” Allen said of Alternative C. “We think that’s what we’re doing now. We think we can continue. We don’t have to cut one off.”

To makes its decision, BLM officials said hearing from all stakeholders including private industry and residents was essential to crafting a fair and balanced plan.

“It’s very important for us to put together the best knowledge to get the best management decisions,” said Hector Gonzalez, RMP team lead at the BLM. “I do believe that as we’re looking at Alternative C, we are working to get to that multiple use.”

Gonzalez said the plan needed a revision after advancements in technology, and population growth throughout the reason.

More: BLM: Oil and gas lease sale in southeast New Mexico nears $1 billion

He said providing the public with the best access to federal land was the driving goal of the revision.

“There is a lot more development going on, but there’s also interest in renewables,” Gonzalez said. “The importance is to continue to ensure the best access to the public.”

Stakeholders include state and local governments, he said, along with residents and representatives from oil and gas companies and non-profit and environmentalist groups.

The revised plan will direct the BLM’s management of the lands for the next 20 to 30 years, said Jim Stovall, BLM Pecos District Manager.

“You’ll see a wide range of alternatives,” he said. “I think with our relationships with the different communities, we need to make sure we are good stewards and good neighbors. We need to find a way to support southeast New Mexico.”

He said most stakeholders he heard from had multiple interests in the plan, rather than focusing one specific agenda such as extraction.

“You need it all,” Stovall said. “We do the best we can with what the public needs are. People make a living in the industry, but they also want to go hunting and experience nature. It’s multiple use whether there is a boom or not."

Striking the balance

Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce CEO Robert Defer said considering all uses, not just extraction or conservation, must be a major theme in the plan to encourage the community’s future.

“The public needs to understand that the BLM understands and regards everyone’s use, not just one or two industries,” he said. “The mixed use is what it needs to be.”

Chris Walls, BLM petroleum engineer, said that balanced approach is especially pertinent during the recent oil boom.

More: Oil and gas adapts to drought as extraction grows in the Permian

“Carlsbad is in the eye of the oil and gas universe,” he said. “The BLM’s mission is to balance. We still need to protect wildlife, and have the oil and gas.”

To accusations from the industry that the BLM’s process for issuing applications to permit drilling (APDs) takes too long – often more than a year – he said federal requirements are in place and those same requirements will maintain after the RMP is complete.

The biggest holdup for APDs, he said, is complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

More: Carlsbad, CID look for new ideas to combat drought

“The requirements for putting a well on federal lands haven’t changed, even though the volume has,” he said. “We still have to meet those requirements.”

BLM geologist Indra Dahal said NEPA is one of the federal governments strongest safeguards against the risks of extraction and development on the environment.

“NEPA is to make sure there is no undue harm,” he said. “The public input is very important. It’s public lands.”

Water scarcity drives innovation

Not only is the land available to oil and gas operations under review, but also the available water.

Chelsie Dugan, BLM hydrologist said federal policy is intended to prevent operations from impacting underground water supplies.

“If someone wants to put a well next to a spring, they’re going to have to prove it’s not connected,” she said.

More: What is drought? A reality for New Mexicans that keeps getting worse

In the desert climate, Dugan said water availability is one of the biggest concerns as drought can further stymie and already arid region.

To mitigate such issues with scarcity, she said many oil and gas companies are showing interest in recycling and reusing brackish water, rather than pumping more fresh water that could be used for irrigation and drinking.

More: Proposed Loving 'man camp' leaves locals worried for water

“We’re seeing a lot of companies that want to recycle,” she said. “That could be a big benefit. We could have the water resources, and oil and gas. It’s kind of that balance, to ensure resources are available for the future.”

In New Mexico, horizontal wells averaged a usage of about 7.3 acre feet at the Bone Springs Formation, records show, lower than the national average of 8.9 acre feet.

David Herrell, soil, water and air lead with the BLM said the scarcity issue could be exacerbated by a drought forcing more innovation from the private sector.

Most of Carlsbad’s and southeast New Mexico’s water is ground water, he said, depending on rainfall to recharge the supplying aquifers.

“Water quantity is the real issue here in Carlsbad,” Herrell said. “We try to find out how much water is used or reused.”

He pointed to brackish water from the Capitan Reef Aquifer as a possible source, albeit requiring treatment.

“If there’s a drought, there will be a lot of dependence on starting to treat it the water, and recycle it,” Herrell said. “Companies are really interested. They’ve been pressing the issue. That’s good for them, and us.”

More: BLM delays sale of land for oil drilling near Carlsbad Caverns, amid protests

But there are some lands that the federal government does not allow extraction on, such as the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

And the underground, largely undiscovered cave system is believed to tie directly to Carlsbad’s underground drinking water supply.

Lechuguilla Cave at the park is made up of 6,000 acres currently protected against drilling.

Park Superintendent Doug Neighbor said he wants to keep it that way.

He said the karstic formations that comprise the caves are especially sensitive to disturbances.

The BLM recently deferred 31 parcels of land proposed for a lease sale to the industry, some within a mile of the park’s boundary.

More: What is karst?: Underground formations could tell us why we're here

“If they’re going to drill near the park, where there’s wilderness, we’ll have to comment on that,” he said.

Aside from proximity to oil and gas operations, Neighbor said his chief concerns include air quality and the view shed at the park.

Nearby oil and gas facilities are often confused by visitors for a city skyline at night, he said, creating light pollution and reducing the allure of the park’s vistas after dark.  

The National Park Service is a cooperating agency with the BLM, Neighbor said, and intends to comment on the RMP.

“Water is always important when it comes to cave and karst,” he said. “The important thing is to be engaged. We need to make sure there is a balance.”

DatePlaceTimeLocation
Mon., Sept. 17Carlsbad, NM12:30–3 PM; 5:30–8 PMPecos River Village Conference Center, 711 Muscatel Ave.
Tues., Sept. 18Artesia, NM12:30–3 PMCentral Valley Electric Cooperative, 1043 N. 13th St.
Roswell, NM5:30–8 PMHoliday Inn, 3620 North Main St.
Wed., Sept. 19Hope, NM5:30–8 PMVillage of Hope, 408 South 2nd Ave.
Thurs., Sept. 20Albuquerque, NM12:30–3 PMHoliday Inn Albuquerque North I-25, 5050 Jefferson St., NE
Tues., Sept. 25Jal, NM12:30–3 PMJal Community Center, 109 W. Panther Ave.
Hobbs, NM5:30–8 PMNew Mexico Junior College, 5317 N. Lovington Hwy.
Thurs., Sept. 27Midland ,TX12:30–3 PMMidland County Centennial Library, 2503 Loop 250 Frontage Rd.

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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