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Federal Decision Still Pending on Otera Mesa Drilling Rules

Picture of Otero MesaCourtesy of: Matt Skroch
Picture of Otero Mesa
Courtesy of: Matt Skroch
March 11, 2013

SANTA FE, N.M. - Plans to change the drilling rules on Otero Mesa are raising concerns about the potential impact on an important aquifer. Until now, Otero Mesa has been protected from the waste left from natural gas drilling, thanks to an executive order from former Gov. Bill Richardson that called for a closed-loop system with the waste hauled away. However, 90 percent of Otero Mesa is on federal land, and the Harvey E. Yates Co. is seeking approval from the federal government to leave its waste in a pit there, instead.

Judy Calman, an attorney for New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said current law favors the state rules, but it is not a sure thing.

"The federal government is required, according to the Supreme Court, to comply with state law unless they can show some really good justification for not following the state law, which they haven't tried to do."

Calman is concerned that making an exception for oil and gas special interests could lead to other New Mexico laws being ignored. The decision has been delayed. It was supposed to be announced by Jan. 23.

Aquifers can easily become contaminated, she warned.

"It's not just like a big pool of water," she said. "It's in little pockets that are at different levels. It's very fragile. If you break through one you have the potential to break through more."

The Salt Basin aquifer is estimated to have enough water to provide 90 years of water for a million New Mexicans.

Rikki Seguin, field associate with Environment New Mexico, also works with the Otero Mesa Coalition. She said it is too late to keep gas drilling out of Otero Mesa, but added that keeping the New Mexico rules in place can help protect the land and the groundwater.

"It's very important that New Mexicans are speaking up, asking Jesse Juen to require them to follow state law," she said.

Juen is the state director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Meanwhile, Environment New Mexico reported, more than 10,000 public comments requesting permanent protection for the area have been filed.

Comments may be made to the BLM by emailing; comments also may be made by phone to 505-954-2222 (press 1 for Otero Mesa).

Renee Blake, Public News Service - NM