By Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main
On Dec. 22, the last day before the longest federal holiday of the year, the federal Bureau of Land Management’s field office in Farmington, New Mexico, publicly announced (quietly, via a webpage update) a project cancellation that did the seemingly impossible: It united both conservation groups and oil and gas producers — in bafflement.
“It’s not an acceptable outcome,” said Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance. “If I was the oil and gas industry, I’d be livid.”
“I do not pretend to know what the BLM is thinking,” said Jason Sandel, executive vice president of Aztec Well Servicing, an oilfield services company in Aztec, New Mexico. He said he hadn’t heard of the announcement until asked about it for this story. Sandel is also a board member with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, and when he asked others in the industry their thoughts, he said, “‘We don’t know’ was more of the response I got.”
The catalyzing event was an announcement from the Farmington Bureau of Land Management office that work on an update and amendment to the district’s Resource Management Plans had been scrapped, with no replacement or path forward announced. The update, conducted in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, would have been selected from among one of four multifaceted options — or a continuation of the status quo — as outlined in a two-volume, 976-page tome, 10 years and countless meetings in the making. Whichever plan was eventually chosen would have rewritten the playbook for vetting new oil and gas development over more than 4 million acres of federal, private and Native lands in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. Broadly speaking, the options ranged from halting all new oil and gas development in the area to dramatically increasing production.
An oil well pumps during a snowstorm in the checkerboard region of northwest New Mexico.
The office currently operates under a plan that dates to 2003, a time before resource- and labor-intensive, hydraulically fractured horizontal drilling techniques were widely used in the culturally and environmentally sensitive region. In particular, a new plan would have updated how the agency factored in Native cultural interests when approving developments.
The last publicly acknowledged work on the project was a series of forums held three and a half years ago. “The lack of work product is an important failure of BLM to do its basic function,” said Mario Atencio, a Navajo conservation activist who lives in the area.
Questions about the plan, its future and why it was scrapped all received the same email response from Allison Sandoval, public affairs specialist at the New Mexico state office of the Bureau of Land Management: “The Farmington Field Office will address future plans following their evaluation of the existing Resource Management Plans, with involvement from both Tribal partners and the public.”
The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs worked together to create the four update options, with the former taking the lead. They worked together because any update would cover development in the Navajo Nation and the so-called checkerboard area of intermixed federal, private and Native lands along the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico.
The Bureau of Land Management announcement listed five main reasons for dumping the plan after a decade of work:
- Interest in renewable energy projects has increased in recent years;
- Same for outdoor recreation;
- Other, active cultural preservation initiatives from both tribes and the bureau itself superseded plan options;
- Last June the Department of Interior (of which the bureau is a part) set aside 336,404 acres of land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a site sacred to Native people across the region, from any future oil and gas development;
- Fossil fuel production across the district has declined overall in recent years.
However, a review of oil and gas production records kept by the state Oil Conservation Division shows that while the annual amount of natural gas produced and its value dropped by more than 50% between 2003 and 2023, oil production grew by 240% in that period while its total annual value rose ninefold. (2023 data is incomplete because the state gives companies a month and a half to file production reports.)
“We’re pleasantly surprised they scrapped the plan,” said Miya King-Flaherty, Wild New Mexico organizing representative with the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. She said the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs’ preferred proposal could have allowed more than 3,000 new oil and gas wells to be drilled in the region. “What remains to be seen is what now?” she said. “Drilling in the region was already controversial, and the … planning process was fraught with frustration.”
Meanwhile, operations continue under the 2003 plan, which “allows industry to move at the speed of last century’s status quo,” says Atencio. “BLM is working with 20th century data rather than keeping up with the times.”
A semi truck carrying fracking sand drives through the checkerboard region of northwest New Mexico.
Sandel says the Farmington Field Office hasn’t kept up with business either. “I do know this office has been derelict in issuing permits,” he said.
“I’m not convinced they’re really doing much of anything,” Eisenfeld said, and he wondered if it could have its staff cut in the future if it’s not writing a development plan or vetting production leases as it has in the past.
When asked if the Farmington Field Office faces staff cuts, Sandoval wrote: “That information is unavailable at this time.”
According to the Bureau of Land Management announcement, the agency will post a notice that it axed the plan to the Federal Register in early 2024 and will then undertake an “evaluation of the existing Farmington RMP (2003) with Tribal and public involvement [to] guide any future revisions or amendments of the Farmington RMP,” which is the process the bureau used to create the now-dead plan in the first place.
“Resource management plans take years to produce and finalize,” King-Flaherty said. “I hope what comes next is positive and is reflective of developing new approaches for managing resources that don’t prioritize oil and gas.”