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Oil and Water
A new version of an old drilling debate rages in southern New Mexico.

Female pronghorn.

Sometimes after a long day of doing wildlife surveys on Otero Mesa, biologist David Griffin will stop to take it all in, staring out over the sweeping emptiness of New Mexico’s last big stretch of desert grassland.

“Anywhere out West it gets harder and harder to find expanses where you can stand in a place and just look,” says Griffin, who is also the president of the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society. “When I finish one of my survey routes—route 4—I can look to the west and see the Organ Mountains and east to the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, 120 to 150 miles away. It’s just an ocean of grass and rolling plains.”

Griffin, who heads Griffin Biological Services, has been doing surveys for four years, tracking the return of the endangered northern aplomado falcon—a magnificent, slate-colored raptor that vanished from New Mexico’s plains in the 1950s—and the habits of black-tailed prairie dogs—once-abundant grassland gardeners, so to speak—whose status (at least among many ranchers) has been relegated to that of a pest.

Early summer ocotillo, with Alamo Mountain in the distance.

The battle for Otero Mesa pits these keystone species against something they can’t see or comprehend: Natural gas reserves deep under the mesa’s fragile grasses. How much gas lies hidden is really anybody’s guess, but the quantity most often thrown about is 16—for the number of days all the gas in Otero Mesa would meet current U.S. demand. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to keep gas companies interested—and to keep the government agencies charged with managing Otero Mesa (mainly the Bureau of Land Management, or the BLM) on their toes. But there’s one thing that makes this conundrum different from what’s happening all over the West (see “Running on Empty,” September-October): Otero Mesa also sits atop an immense freshwater aquifer, which could supply the state’s entire population with all the water it needs for decades. There they lie, two liquid giants slumbering under the windswept plains, as stakeholders decide whether gas or water—or the delicate ecosystem far above them—will prevail.

A common nighthawk.

Otero Mesa isn’t unspoiled wilderness. It’s been inhabited for centuries, and some parts of it have been preserved as ACECs, or areas of critical environmental concern, because of their archeological importance. The mesa provides grazing land for cattle belonging to several ranchers, and it also bears some scars of historic oil and gas development.

The battle for the area’s reserves began in earnest in 1997, when the Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO) discovered natural gas in a well at Otero Mesa’s southern end, near the Texas border. A flurry of activism, lawsuits, and management plans followed shortly thereafter. The BLM proposed opening 800,000 acres of Otero Mesa to lease to gas companies; while the gas companies found the plan too restrictive, the environmentalists found it too lenient.

The BLM returned with a new plan in 2004, allowing gas production on fewer than 1,600 acres and on only five percent of any lease area at a time—but that outraged environmentalists, too, because it didn’t specify where in the lease area development could happen. In other words, the plan would open the door to a patchwork of roads, power lines, well pads, and human and vehicle traffic. In other parts of New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming, such activities had been proven to contribute to the decline of critical species like the aplomado falcon and the sage-grouse.

Stipa grassland with the Cornudas Mountains in the distance.

New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson, took up the torch for Otero Mesa, and on Earth Day 2005, he and the state sued the BLM for failing to produce an environmentally sound management plan. The case is in court, and the two wells HEYCO had time to drill before interest groups called foul are sitting out there, filled with gas, waiting.

When Richardson brings up Otero Mesa, “he usually mentions wildlife first and then discusses groundwater,” says Karyn Stockdale, executive director of Audubon New Mexico. According to Stockdale, the wildlife issue is enough to draw in the state’s sizable hunting contingent. Audubon has declared Otero Mesa an Important Bird Area, since it’s part of the flyway for more than 250 species of migratory songbirds and provides essential habitat for grassland birds like Sprague’s pipits, Baird’s sparrows, and burrowing owls. It also hosts several rare grasses, a fifth of the world’s cactus species, and one of New Mexico’s last herds of pronghorn antelope.

A lesser earless lizard.

According to biologists, the effects of drilling would be far-reaching. Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico (at a couple hours’ drive, it’s the closest town of any size to Otero Mesa), coauthored a 2005 paper on the potential impacts of drilling on Otero Mesa’s rich ecology. He found that drilling would not only lead to catastrophic habitat fragmentation for wildlife, but also that its impact on the fragile, shallow-rooted rare grasslands they depend on could be irreversible.

Some experts also worry that drilling for natural gas will contaminate Otero Mesa’s massive Salt Basin Aquifer, a fear warranted by studies done by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, which found more than 700 instances of oil- and gas-related groundwater contamination between 1990 and 2005.

For Bixby, 16 days’ worth of natural gas isn’t worth the risk. “Why are we sacrificing this extraordinary ecological treasure and important future water source if there’s not enough natural gas to justify its destruction?” Bixby asks. “For a little more than two weeks of natural gas, we’re going to destroy it? That’s just wrong.”

Wind mountain.

In terms of protection, the best environmental groups can hope for is a wilderness designation, which would permanently block any form of commercial enterprise—including, of course, gas development—on Otero Mesa. But total protection for all 1.2 million acres might be a hard sell, despite widespread (and bipartisan) support.

“Environmental groups don’t want to be criticized for asking for the moon,” says Audubon’s Stockdale. Partly for that reason, they’ve embraced a proposal (which Richardson has endorsed) to declare close to 600,000 contiguous acres of Otero Mesa an ACEC—a designation which, though temporary, requires special management by the BLM. That sort of big, continuous swath of preserved land would be enough to keep the grasses and their denizens intact—and to prevent the habitat fragmentation and general disruption that roads, vehicle and human traffic, and gas wells often cause.

According to Edward Seum, at the BLM’s Las Cruces office, however, an ACEC wouldn’t give Otero Mesa “any more protection than it already has.” But Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director at Wild Earth Guardians, a Colorado-based environmental group that has lobbied for better management of the wild aplomado falcon, isn’t convinced. “He is simply wrong,” she counters. “The management prescriptions we’ve provided would amount to much more protection.”

A loggerhead shrike.

Rosmarino’s group is in a legal battle of its own. In 2002, for the first time in 50 years, two wild aplomado falcons fledged young in Otero Mesa, which is ideal habitat for the raptor’s recovery. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied requests to designate Otero Mesa as critical habitat, opting instead to lump wild aplomado falcons together with captive-bred, reintroduced birds under a “nonessential, experimental” label, which doesn’t require the same level of habitat protection as an endangered or threatened species would. According to Rosmarino, a “nonessential” designation would give the gas companies free rein to drill. In 2006 Wild Earth Guardians, along with the Sierra Club, the New Mexico Audubon Council, and other groups, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to properly protect the falcon’s habitat; Rosmarino says a decision is imminent.

If an ACEC or a critical habitat designation isn’t enough to stop the drilling, the urgency of preserving the Salt Basin Aquifer might be—especially in a state where water is such a precious resource. Indeed, the aquifer is big enough to supply one million New Mexicans with a century’s worth of potable water (the state currently has about two million residents). “The general lay public may well be more interested in the water issue [than in wildlife and biodiversity],” says Bob Tafanelli, a biologist and founding board member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

A red-tailed hawk, with Flat Top and Wind Mountain beyond.

But if Otero Mesa is preserved just for its water and not also for its ecological value, then what happens when New Mexico decides to use the water? “We have a good aquifer there,” say Griffin, the biologist. “But then in 50 years when we need it, what is that development process like?” Extracting the water could also put pressures on the surrounding environment.

Kevin Bixby says he doesn’t think New Mexico will tap the Salt Basin Aquifer anytime soon because there aren’t any big cities nearby that need the water—yet. If anyone does, he says, it’ll be El Paso, Texas—which earlier this year passed a resolution urging the permanent protection of Otero Mesa. (Las Cruces also passed one in August.) It might be tempting to think that El Paso’s conservation bid was motivated by simple water lust.

“That’s an important reason, but not the only reason,” says Bixby. Like New Mexico’s hodgepodge of conservation-minded politicians, ranchers, sportsmen, environmentalists, and even a couple of Catholic bishops, El Pasoans also have an appreciation for a virtually unspoiled grassland, he says. For those who know and love Otero Mesa, they know the grassland is also connected to the prairie dogs, which are connected to the hawks and the pippits and the pronghorn—and the aquifer.

“One of the problems we have when we look at conservation is we look inside the box too much,” says Tafanelli, of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, “Otero Mesa is not just water; it’s not just birds; it’s not just habitat. It’s a composite of all those things.”

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