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New Mexico grasslands latest battleground over drilling

ALAMO MOUNTAIN, N.M.—These sprawling, scrawny grasslands, dotted with cacti, tumbleweeds and grazing cattle, are the real front line in America's battle over public lands and energy drilling.

This isn't the pristine and remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, whose fate Congress will debate again this year. It's Otero Mesa, an area bordered by majestic mountains with ancient Indian petroglyphs—and an active bombing range.

America's ever-increasing thirst for homegrown energy means that more drills must encroach on dwindling open landscapes. Americans are consuming 16 percent more energy than they were in 1990, and dependence on foreign fuel is growing. The Bush administration is making a big push to produce more fuel—especially clean-burning natural gas—from public land. That raises questions about the best use of public land, and whether any of it should be off-limits to drilling.

After putting energy exploration in the Otero Mesa on hold for several years, the Interior Department announced in late January that it would permit limited drilling for natural gas and oil here. The move came days after similar announcements opened areas in Alaska and Utah to drilling.

This 2 million-acre region of south-central New Mexico isn't likely to produce much natural gas or oil. It has a 75-year record of dry wells. Two of the leading industry proponents who call for opening up drilling here say they won't even bid for drilling rights because they'd probably lose money.

The Otero Mesa isn't exactly wild and pristine. Even though New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Chairman Wes Leonard called it "teeming with wildlife," the only animals he could spot in a three-hour winter tour of the mesa were some owls, a handful of other birds he couldn't identify and herds of grazing cattle.

Though there appears to be little here worth fighting over, both sides talk and act as if everything is at stake. This is about the big picture: how to manage America's public lands.

"This is what we're trying to protect: the vast grasslands that are untrampled," Leonard said. "We're drawing a line in the sand—or the grass."

Chuck Moran, the president of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, posing next to a quiet, clean natural-gas well outside the mesa's borders, said he and his fellow wildcatters until now had been "denied the American dream" to take their chances drilling in Otero Mesa.

The land they're fighting over is yours. The Otero Mesa, like 48 percent of the 11 Western lower continental states, is federally owned. The Interior Department administers lands that produce about a third of the country's domestic energy supply.

Drilling on these public lands is skyrocketing. In the 2004 federal budget year, the Interior Department issued a record 6,052 drilling permits for public land, up 59 percent from the year before. The number of permits issued has nearly quadrupled in the last five years. Last year, the Interior Department issued, on average, a drill permit every 20 minutes of the federal workday.

The Otero Mesa is the latest in a flurry of Bush administration decisions to open more public lands to energy exploration.

In January, the Interior Department announced that it would permit drilling in part of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve Area, a section that previously had been set aside because of environmental concerns. After that, part of southern Utah was opened to exploratory drilling. Then came Otero Mesa. All had restrictions on how much land could be drilled on and at what times of the year it could be done.

"The difference between the last administration and this is their approach was open or closed," Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson said in an interview with Knight Ridder this month. "Our approach is not open or closed, but open with protective restrictions."

That means more energy coming from public lands and waters, including areas that once were off-limits. The amount that's there is staggering. Just five Western states, from New Mexico to Montana, have enough natural gas on public land to heat all the American homes that use gas for 29 years, Watson said.

"Public lands will play an increasingly important role in the production of oil and natural gas," Watson said. "A growing percentage of oil and gas that will be recovered domestically will be coming from public land and public resources."

Industry officials think high energy prices are helping to win over the public.

"For probably the first time in a decade, there is momentum on the side of the industry," said New Mexico Oil and Gas Association President Bob Gallagher, a former Clinton administration energy official.

The Clinton administration leased lots of public land for energy exploration but decided that some areas that now are open or likely to be were off-limits. The Bush administration is being more ideological, said John Leshy, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, and the Interior Department's chief lawyer during the Clinton administration.

"I really think they want to back the environmentalists into a corner and just see how far they can go," Leshy said.

The most important growth in energy production is likely to be in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, from 2-mile-deep wells that started producing their first gas last year, Watson said.

Some Floridians worry that the drilling will approach their west coast, ending a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. In December, senators from both parties asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to end the moratorium. The reason: Interior's Minerals Management Service now thinks the eastern gulf has more than two-and-a-half times as much natural gas as a 2000 estimate suggested.

Watson said the Bush administration wouldn't end the moratorium or permit drilling off the Florida coast.

Meanwhile, especially in the West, "What we've seen is that they're issuing more and more leases in what would be considered frontier areas," said Dave Alberswerth, the public-lands program director for the Washington environmental group The Wilderness Society.

These days there are more drilling rigs and less frontier in New Mexico, where 1,319 public-land drilling permits were issued last year. The state is second only to Wyoming in drilling on public land.

Environmentalists describe Otero Mesa in glowing terms, saying that as part of the Chihuahuan desert it was listed as one of 200 international ecosystems of global significance by the World Wildlife Fund.

George Yates, the president of the HEYCO oil company, which wants to drill there, is unimpressed.

"It's next to a bombing range," he said. "You can trip over ordnance there. You're not going to see any wildlife."

In the late 1990s, HEYCO found natural gas in two test wells. The implications of a run on drilling in the mesa led the Clinton administration to put any more drilling there on hold for further studies.

"We made the mistake of taking a huge risk and drilling a successful well," said Yates, a big Republican campaign contributor and fund-raiser. "We have an investment to recover. The larger issue is what we do with our public lands."

In opening up the mesa, the Interior Department is putting the most restrictive limitations on drilling ever, Watson said. The plan limits exploration to 141 exploratory wells and 84 producing wells. The most land that would be disturbed would add up to 1,589 acres.

The trouble is that the Interior Department rarely enforces such restrictions, said Ned Farquhar, energy adviser to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Richardson, who was President Clinton's energy secretary, vowed to slow or stop the drilling.

"They're leaving probably 600,000 acres open to leasing that we believe should not be leased at all," Farquhar said. "Energy is important everywhere. It doesn't mean we dig out everything we've got and use it now."

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For more information, check out the following Web sites:

The Web site for the Interior Department's decision on Otero Mesa: www.nm.blm.gov/lcfo/white_sands_rmpa_eis/white_sands_rmpa_eis.html

The New Mexico governor's comments on Otero Mesa:

http://governor.state.nm.us/press.php?id=74

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance on Otero Mesa:

www.oteromesa.org

The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico:

http://ipanm.org

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ENV-DRILLING

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050215 DRILLING

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