In September, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will hold a sale on almost 200 drilling leases for 89,000 acres in Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties. About a dozen of those leases are within a mile of the boundary of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The National Parks Conservation Association hopes the BLM will defer the parcels nearest to the park, in critical cave and karst areas and in other places with environmental concerns or wilderness characteristics, said Ernie Atencio, the nonprofit’s New Mexico Program Manager.
“They heard our request to that effect, and they might even agree and prepare the paperwork for it, but that’s another decision that has to come down from D.C. and no longer in the hands of local managers,” he said.
Since 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order creating what was then called Carlsbad Cave National Monument, the region has been transformed, largely due to oil drilling in the Permian Basin. The basin—which includes portions of southeastern New Mexico but lies mostly within Texas—has become one of the world’s biggest and most profitable oil fields. In recent years, multinational companies like ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron have invested heavily in the basin, buying up land and contributing to a boom that has hotels in Carlsbad charging hundreds of dollars a night, prices more on par with major cities like New York or Atlanta than a southeastern New Mexico farming and tourist town.
Today, the national park encompasses nearly 47,000 acres, more than 33,000 acres of which are designated wilderness. But most of the region’s cavern systems extend beyond the park’s boundary and remain unexplored. And people are learning more every year about the area’s cave and karst systems—karst refers to limestone that has been washed away over time, creating crevices and tunnels with water.
Massive changes over the decades
Jim Goodbar has explored the region since he was 15 years old in the mid-1960s—and he’s worried about what more drilling will mean for the area’s water resources.
Goodbar worked for the BLM for almost 40 years, including as the agency’s Cave and Karst Program Manager and New Mexico’s State Cave Coordinator. He also was involved in establishing the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad and writing the regulations that promulgated the Federal Cave Resource Protection Act of 1988.
Goodbar recalls when the Carlsbad field office of BLM first opened in the spring of 1979. He worked as outdoor recreation planner with three other employees: a range conservation officer, a wildlife biologist and an archaeologist. Since then, there have been “pretty massive” changes said Goodbar, who retired earlier this year. Oil production has skyrocketed, raising the potential for increased threats to groundwater.
Contamination of a karst system is a more direct threat than spills on soil at the surface, he explained. “The nature of a karst is like flushing a toilet: it’s a direct conduit to the groundwater system and there’s very little stopping or controlling a spill,” he said. “It’s unchecked, and goes like water in a pipe to the groundwater resource….it can travel miles and miles in a very, very short period of time.”
Given the extent of karst systems and the lack of research on them, there are a lot of questions BLM and industry can’t answer when spills occur, he said, including: Where will it go? Who is downstream? Who will you notify?
“A lot of the areas they’re looking at [for new development] could be heavily impacted in ways we don’t even understand,” said Goodbar. He’s not anti-oil drilling, he said. Industry and conservation are both important, but he thinks it’s incumbent upon his former agency and industry to exhibit caution.
Earlier this spring, Gary Kraft, a pilot who volunteers with EcoFlight, took Atencio, Goodbar, a few locals and two journalists on flights above the proposed lease sale area.
From the air, it’s easy to see which lands are protected within the park boundary and which have been developed and industrialized. Thousands of feet below the Cessna, vegetation reveals the outline of the Black River. The crags of the Guadalupe Mountains seem pressed almost flat in the June morning light. Sinkholes are visible, too.
But long before afternoon winds kick up dust, visibility is low. Looking down from the plane, the air quality is poor. There are thousands of oil wells in the area, each with a road and many with waste ponds. From above the surface of the Earth, it’s plain to see how hard this landscape is worked.
The federal office in southeastern New Mexico responsible for handling these leases and drilling permits—and balancing conservation, industry and federal regulations—is one that’s been on the lips of state and federal officials over the past year and a half.
After a company purchases a lease, it then files an application for permit to drill, or APD, that includes information on the well’s specific location, how it plans to develop the well, what roads need to be built and bonding. The company may also need to obtain zoning, state and air and water quality permits, and have the site inspected. (One lease can have multiple wells drilled on it.)
It’s a complicated process, and repeatedly over the past year, lawmakers and industry have criticized the Carlsbad Field Office for processing those APDs too slowly.
In June, Gov. Susana Martinez and New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Ken McQueen testified before the U.S. House Resources Committee that bureaucratic backlogs in the Carlsbad Field Office of BLM were hurting the state. Martinez, McQueen and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce pointed fingers specifically at the Carlsbad Office, condemning a backlog of 800 permit applications.
The hearing focused on four bills to boost energy development on federal lands in the United States, including two introduced by Pearce. One would “clarify” categorical exclusions authorized under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and “streamline” oil and gas permitting, and the other would remove requirements for drilling permits by the BLM on non-federal lands for subsurface minerals that are less than 50 percent owned by the federal government.
At that June hearing, California Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lowenthal pointed out that nationwide, about 2,600 applications are pending approval, while more than 8,000 permits not being used.
But the refrain about the Carlsbad office is used to justify calls to roll back federal oversight and as Martinez said during the June hearing, “streamline layers of bureaucratic requirements and expedite the approval process.”
Last year, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director—and former New Mexico Environment Department Secretary—Ryan Flynn testified that the BLM’s delays in approving permits and “administrative problems” cause hundreds of millions of dollars of losses in federal royalties and also losses in New Mexico severance tax. U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has raised the issue, as has deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Katharine MacGregor.
Jim Stovall, BLM’s Pecos District Manager, who oversees the Roswell and Carlsbad offices, acknowledged the backlog to NM Political Report.
To meet the demands from industry, the state and national offices of BLM have helped out, Stovall said, and they’re also using four staffers from the Roswell office and a handful of employees from Oklahoma. The Carlsbad office currently employs 105 people, and they’re hoping to hire 25 more soon.
But drilling demand has increased dramatically.
In 2015, the office received 978 APDs, Stovall said. The number dropped to 436 in 2016 and picked back up again in 2017 to 793.
Just in the first three quarters of 2018, the office has received 1,100 APDs.
The team in southeastern New Mexico is doing the best it can, Stovall said: “We just happen to be one of the busiest offices in the nation.”
As for the leases close to the national park, it remains to be seen if they’ll be among the leases for sale to industry in September.
The acting chief of communication for the BLM’s New Mexico State Office, Lisa Morrison, explained the process for nominating parcels and lease sales.
The leases the agency is considering right now were nominated by the oil and gas industry. The closure date for that “expression of interest” ended in March. Then, the agency hosted a two-week public scoping period. Now, employees are analyzing all those responses.
“Once all the proper analysis has been done, we can make a determination whether we defer some of the nominated parcels from the lease sale, or proceed,” Morrison said. “But we haven’t made those decisions yet.”
The decisions will be announced in about a week. Then a protest period will run from July 23 through August 1. (That information will be posted on the agency’s website.) In September, the final list of parcels will go up for sale.
NM Political Report also reached out to Pearce, who is leaving the congressional seat that represents the area to run for New Mexico governor.
According to Pearce, “the economy of southeastern New Mexico, and the state overall, is greatly impacted by the success of oil and gas production, as well as the tourism around Carlsbad Caverns.”
He added that the two economic generators have, and can, benefit the community and the state at the same time and “supports increased economic opportunity for both, so long as they don’t negatively impact each other.”