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An Inside Look at What Happens When Gas Drillers Are Exempt from Environmental Law

Rancher Chris Velasquez knows first hand what gas drilling has done to communities, and the land, water and wildlife of New Mexico.

BLANCO, New Mexico -- Chris Velasquez sees the impacts of gas development in the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico through the eyes of a rancher, and those of a man whose roots in this country pre-date both the gas rigs and the arrival of Anglos.

He and his dad ran cattle, until recently, on a grazing allotment called the Rosa, rolling high desert lands punctuated by bluffs and arroyos, ringed by mesas, adjacent to the Carson National Forest on the east, the Southern Ute reservation to the north, and bordered on the west by Navajo Lake. In a way, it's what's left of Velasquez' ancestral homeland. "We used to live where the Pine River and the San Juan meet up here, then when they built the lake, it either was drown or move," he says. In 1962, the Bureau of Reclamation completed a dam stretching three-quarters of a mile across the San Juan River. The idea was to control flooding and provide irrigation water for the Navajo tribe. It also displaced Velasquez' community. "All my ancestor's on my mom's side, well on my dad's side too, came from right up here," he says. "My grandpa and my grandma on my mom's side, they were the second farm below the dam. They got chased out too. From right here on, all the people who lived here -- they were all Spanish people -- relocated. Threw them to the four winds. Scattered them all over the place."

The Velasquez family wasn't blown far: his dad bought a place near Blanco, New Mexico, the nearest town with a name, a short drive west and south of their former home. The entire clan now lives and ranches on about 320 acres they share with 17 gas wells. "My dad's the one that started the ranch, but we've always had animals," he says. It was the former owners who sold the mineral rights back in the 1930s or 40s. "So they've been after this area for a long time," he says. "They've been hammering it, it didn't happen overnight. They had a vision for it."

The gas industry pumps three billion cubic feet of natural gas every day out of the San Juan Basin, which straddles the New Mexico-Colorado border. Only about seven percent of the land in this part of New Mexico is private, the rest divided between the state, feds and tribes. As of winter 2010, the San Juan gas field ranks second in production volume only to the Powder River basin of Wyoming. Some 3,000 compressors run 24 hours a day, seven days a week pressurizing gas from about 23,000 wells, lighting up the canyons and hilltops in all directions. Gas companies have punched in two and half miles of road for every square mile of land -- that's 5,400 miles worth -- nearly all dirt roads through wild country.

Though ConocoPhillips is the largest, more than 130 companies lease through the BLM here, subcontracting out everything from road construction to water hauling, putting hundreds of operators with trucks on these back roads every day of the year. While the field was officially discovered in 1927, this was ground zero for coal-bed methane (gas extracted from between layers of coal seams -- held in place by water, released when the water is drawn out), and business boomed in the 1980s, industrializing the otherwise rural landscape.

Velasquez and his family trucked cattle to the Rosa each summer for nearly two decades. His daughters spent their childhoods on horseback, camping out, wrangling. He points out abandoned homesites near natural springs, fishing holes that were rich with native squawfish before the dam, canyons containing rock art and Anasazi ruins, places of adventure from his childhood. Velasquez set aside 10,000 of those acres for wildlife conservation in 1996, a winter closure to give the mule deer some respite after his girls watched hunters on off-road vehicles chase a small herd into a pond where they nearly drowned. "My youngest daughter would call them the murderers," he says. "They can hunt on here, but they have to walk. They can't drive their vehicles. And there was some pissed off hunters."

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