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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.

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Velasquez was a model rancher, and had a good working relationship with the BLM. In 1995 the agency nominated him for an Excellence in Range Management award, which he won. He and another rancher, Linn Blancett of Aztec, served on the Oil and Gas Ranchers Working Group.

The BLM office out of Farmington, New Mexico, manages leases for all the federal land in this portion of the basin, accounting for most of the active wells (the rest are under state or private lease). In advance of drilling, the BLM normally undertakes a massive planning effort, setting guidelines so exploration and production won't unduly affect wildlife, destroy archeological sites, dirty the air and water; so roads will be correctly built and maintained, wells will be placed appropriately for the terrain. And giving the public a chance to review and comment in advance of the dozers and drilling rigs. Or at least that was the process until the 2005 Energy Policy Act, in which the Bush Administration pushed through Congress a five-year pilot project called "categorical exclusions" in which the oil and gas industries were exempt from federal environmental laws.

Farmington BLM director Steve Henke says his office still performed all those analyses, they just did so outside the public eye. "It was a full environmental review with the same components of an environmental assessment with the exception that we didn't formally document and analyze alternatives," he says. "And we handled most of that just out in the field with that discussion saying, 'We're close to an arch site, or we're in a bald eagle area or a winter restriction area or, you staked this on a slope that's just not acceptable, we need to move it.'"

Henke says he'd bet no one could look at any particular set of well pads and tell which was approved with a formal environmental review, and which went forward under President Bush's 'categorical exclusion' experiment.

Rancher Velasquez would agree, though not for the reasons Henke intends. His experience on the Rosa, he says, has led him to believe that the rules on paper -- BLM regulations, state wildlife guidelines, the industry's own 'Good Neighbor' program -- are regularly ignored in the field. After my talk with Henke, Velasquez takes me on a day-long tour of the Rosa. We start out on a chilly February morning, during the wet winter of 2010 when road conditions were at their worst. We have a hard time finding any site that appears to meet all BLM requirements: we find inadequate and fallen fences, open gates, puddles and catch basins of viscous liquid, leaky pipes everywhere. Ruts in the roads approach and exceed six inches, the point at which BLM regs state they should be shut down and fixed.

Henke tells me his team of 30 inspectors intends to attempt to get out to each well pad once every three years, and has been coming pretty close to that goal lately. If someone calls with a complaint, they'll check it out. But jurisdiction and oversight are complex. The BLM keeps track of things like fencing and road conditions, while the state tracks air and water quality. Folks with complaints have a hard time figuring out whom to call. And then the companies themselves are always merging, buying and selling leases. As one woman put it, "You start out reporting this cattle guard and they say, 'Well, it's not ours, call BP.' And BP says, 'Well, it's not ours. Call Conoco.' And they said, 'Well, it's not ours. Call Williams.' You go around the circle and when you get to this one there, they say 'It's not ours, call Conoco.' Where you started, you know."

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