Amid a Permian Basin oil and gas boom, conservation advocates worry the current levels of industry activity occurring on federally-managed lands in southeast New Mexico are unsustainable, damaging to the land, reducing habitat for wildlife and further stressing populations of fauna that are struggling against a changing climate.
A 2018 policy change drastically increased the frequency of oil and gas lease sales in the state, propelling the Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees management of BLM land in portions of the Permian Basin, to become one of the busiest BLM field offices in the country. The Carlsbad office is also in the midst of a resource management program (RMP) revision that began in 2010, updating the 1988 RMP that outlines, among other things, where oil and gas leases can be sold.
Conservation groups such as the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance have nominated several areas for federal protection against oil and gas development. And the state’s Game and Fish Department has identified a number of important wildlife migration corridors in the Permian Basin for protections from oil and gas activity. But the BLM continues to lease parcels of land within these areas for oil and gas.
Conservation efforts on public lands
The Permian Basin is both an extremely rich oilfield and an incredibly unique enclave of biodiversity in the desert. It contains the confluence of three desert rivers, salt playas and semi-desert grasslands, each important habitat for wildlife ranging from great blue herons to small sage dune lizards.
Judy Calman, Director of Policy for Audubon New Mexico, said the area is considered a particularly important place for birds.
“It’s actually been designated an important bird area by Audubon, and it has one of the highest levels of raptor diversity in the country,” Calman told NM Political Report. “There’s tons of birds flying through there on migration flights and also living there.”
Calman formerly served as a senior attorney at New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, where she worked on designating ecologically sensitive regions of the Permian Basin as areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs), a BLM administrative designation that helps to guide oil and gas leasing on public lands.
New Mexico Wilderness Alliance nominated four ACECs within the jurisdiction of the Carlsbad office during the early phases of its RMP revision process. Those nominations include important grassland habitat for birds of prey; heronries where great blue herons nest and feed; salt playas that hold water during rain events, and the area surrounding the confluence of the Pecos, Black and Delaware rivers.
The avian diversity supported by these habitats is staggering. Over 10 species of birds of prey alone have been identified in one proposed ACEC, located in the grasslands northwest of Carlsbad. Those species include bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, a variety of hawks, and a slew of owl species, including great horned owls, screech owls, burrow owls and pygmy owls. It’s also the habitat of the endangered Aplomado falcon, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent 30 years trying to recover.
“[The area] provides a diversity of habitat for nesting sites and hunting areas for a really wide variety of birds of prey,” said Logan Glasenapp, a staff attorney at New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “It’s one of the few areas in this part of the country that offers such a diverse swath of habitat for these birds.”
Conservation groups aren’t the only ones interested in protecting swaths of Permian Basin from development. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department (NMDGF) also identified areas considered important wildlife corridors for game species. That work was the result of a secretarial order from former U.S. Department of Interior head Ryan Zinke. NMDGF identified a number of corridors during that process, including one that coincides with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance’s birds of prey ACEC.
“It’s a huge ACEC proposal, it’s 330,000 acres. It would be one of the largest ACECs in the country if it was designated,” Calman said. She added that NMDGF submitted comments to BLM in support of the birds of prey ACEC designation, because it aligns with the state’s wildlife corridors protections.
“It’s a mule deer and pronghorn migration corridor too,” she said.
Oil and gas leasing on sensitive land
The protection designations for these patches of land in the Permian Basin are currently hanging in limbo as the Carlsbad office continues its RMP revision.
ACEC and other designations, such as the land with wilderness characteristics (LWCs), are generally only considered during RMP revisions, said Melanie Barnes, Deputy State Director in the Division of Land & Resources at the BLM. And it’s not unusual for such revision processes to take eight years or more to complete. Meanwhile, BLM policy is to follow the existing RMP until a new plan is approved, which means the Carlsbad office approves parcels for oil and gas activity based on the 1988 RMP.
While the RMP is being revised, New Mexico has experienced an oil boom in the Permian Basin. At the same time, the BLM has ramped up oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico. The land managed by the Carlsbad office is now being leased four times as fast as it was just three years ago.
“You have this perfect storm,” Calman said, referring to the boom in the Permian Basin. “If you keep leasing inside these proposed ACECs, they’re not going to qualify anymore for ACEC designation by the time you actually get to a decision.”
Calman said at least one of the proposed ACECs has been leased so heavily that it may no longer meet the criteria required for ACEC designation.
“Once development happens, you can’t reclaim it to what it was before. And especially in Carlsbad, with such an active basin, it might not even be reclaimed for another 70 years,” Calman said. “Once it’s done, it can’t be undone easily.”
Barnes said the BLM completes additional site-specific environmental analyses for parcels that are located within a proposed ACEC or other protection designation to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“In those cases, the interdisciplinary team identifies any resources that might be impacted by the proposed action. For a proposed action such as a lease sale parcel that has been nominated that’s in a proposed ACEC, the NEPA document can analyze the potential impacts of that action on the resources that the ACEC would be designated to protect.”
In the meantime, Barnes doesn’t expect the new RMP, and any new ACEC designations, to be finalized for another year.
Carlsbad BLM in danger of becoming a ‘single-use office’
The BLM has faced increased criticism from wildlife and conservation groups under President Donald Trump’s administration for what some perceive as a shift in priorities toward energy development on public lands at the expense of the environment.
But Barnes said the department continues to manage public lands for multiple uses across presidential administrations.
“The mission of the BLM remains constant, even though policies may change and may emphasize different aspects of what BLM manages,” she told NM Political Report.
Still, Calman and Glasenapp argue that the department should defer leasing parcels for oil and gas development within areas that have been proposed for protections until a decision is made in the final RMP.
“Our position is that these ACECs and LWCs that we’ve proposed need to be deferred, meaning don’t sell any oil and gas leases encompassed by these ACECs and LWCs until the RMP is finalized and BLM has made its decision on these critical lands,” Glasenapp said.
He pointed to a group of parcels that were put up for sale in a December 2018 oil and gas lease sale round. Those parcels overlapped with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance’s proposed ACEC for birds of prey, as well as a LWC that was proposed to BLM.
“We submitted scoping comments to that effect. They did not remove those parcels. They put them up for sale. We protested the oil and gas lease sale and got a decision back from BLM saying that they’ve considered our proposals and are moving forward,” Glasenapp said.
“To the best of our knowledge, they aren’t doing the kind of necessary analysis that they have to do under the manual, to ensure these wilderness characteristics are preserved until they’ve made decisions in the RMP,” Glasenapp said. “If they are, it doesn’t have the depth of analysis that we think needs to be employed to ensure that these characteristics are protected.”
“At this point, in Carlsbad, 98 percent of BLM land is open to leasing, and most of it is already leased. So it’s not like we’re asking for that much,” Calman said. “BLM is supposed to be a multiple use agency. It’s not supposed to be a single-use field office.”