An Inside Look at What Happens When Gas Drillers Are Exempt from Environmental Law
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."
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."
When I mention the conditions I witnessed on the Rosa to the acting director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, the state's main industry group, Deborah Seligman asks me why I didn't report the violations. "Did you write them down? You took pictures. Did you call them?"
If we saw 100 wells that day, I reply, is it my job to track down and notify each company? Whose job is it? I ask her. Is it the rancher's job? Because, I'm thinking, he's already got a job.
No, she agrees, it's the industry's responsibility, and she maintains they police themselves just fine.
In 2005, Velasquez and Blancett walked out on the BLM ranchers' working group. It was, Velasquez says, a waste of his time. "I used to spend a lot of time with the guys from the BLM," he says. "I thought I was doing good, we were making progress. I found out I was just chasing my tail.
"We were fighting the same thing over and over again. They'd tell us in the meetings, 'Well, we got everything taken care of.' Okay, let's go out and look at it. I'll be darned if the first time we stopped here, it hit them right in the nose. 'Oh it shouldn't be like that. We're going to get it fixed. Next time you come out here it's gonna be fixed. We're gonna have it done.' Yeah right.
"We were the only suckers who weren't getting paid."
A year later, Velasquez gave up on the Rosa as well. Basically, he says, cattle and gas development on this scale can't co-exist. There's the constant traffic of water-hauling and maintenance trucks, heavy machinery scraping away at the muddy roads, drilling and fracturing rigs. Animals get hit. They drink from temporary reserve pits, catch basins, and puddles containing the byproducts of gas production: methanol, glycol, antifreeze used to defrost transmission pipes.
Velasquez documented as his animals lost on average a sixth of their weight in four years. He took pictures of cows and calves losing hair at their muzzles, a sign they'd been drinking polluted water. He had the herd tested for petroleum products -- a $4,500 endeavor -- and found all but two were positive for at least trace amounts. He sent pond water to a lab when he suspected it had been contaminated after a near-by reserve pit overflowed its berm. When eight of his cattle died in one week, he footed the bill for the autopsy ($550 for one animal). "When they opened her up, her liver had turned light pink, and it disintegrated as soon as the air hit it. It was like mushy at first when you pick it up with your fingers, then it just went through your fingers. Dissolved," he says. "And it's a slow death, it's not something that they can die right away from it. They kind of walk around there, with their head down until finally they lay down and die. All their organs quit on them."
When twenty of his cows got into some glycol or methanol-laced water, he lost that year's calves. He shows me the test results, the receipts for all this, as well as the response from Phillips Petroleum when --18 months after the year of the lost calves -- they sent him a check for $9,900 for the "alleged" poisoning. "This is just a small token for what they've done," he says. "They've contaminated my entire outfit. They'll pay, but they won't admit wrongdoing."
Phillips, now merged into ConocoPhillips, declined to be interviewed for this story, but sent an email stating, "as the largest operator/producer in the basin, ConocoPhillips constantly seeks ways to mitigate the impact of drilling and production."
Velasquez' frustration isn't just a matter of the hits to his pocket book. He points out, as we drive deeper into the Rosa, how the sagebrush, juniper and piñon trees get smaller, scragglier, and eventually, deader. Mule deer populations are down, he is sure though both the state and the feds have no data on the matter -- they have no pre-drilling baseline data, so no one is keeping track in any kind of statistically meaningful way, wildlife specialists from both the BLM and New Mexico Fish and Game tell me.
We come across the carcass of an emaciated fawn by the side of the road, not scavenged by coyotes. "See when they drink that methanol and that glycol, the coyotes and the wildlife won't eat it, they know it's contaminated," Velasquez says. As a former road maintenance employee of San Juan County, he's got the expertise to grouse at the condition of the roads. "This company, they've extracted enough gas just out of the Rosa to have this road paved and done correctly. See how the roads, the water just piles up in the middle like this? That's where the erosion and sediment comes in. ... When the mud gets real heavy they'll bring in them big dozers like V-8s or V-9s, and they'll plow that road until they find dry ground, and they'll just shove that dirt completely off the road."
His frustration has built over the years, the result of dozens of accidents, slights and insults. He tells of the time a semi-sized rig climbing a steep grade locked onto his horse trailer so neither could move. The supervisor should have been ahead on the road, he says, making sure the way was clear. Another day, a water truck driver coming fast around a curve slammed on his breaks and slid sideways. "It damn near landed on top of us. I was so damn scared I couldn't even open the door to get out and chew him out."
Twenty years ago, Velasquez locked the gate leading to his private land, closing out a bulldozer driver who wanted to use the road as a shortcut to a project on BLM land. The company called the sheriff, and Velasquez was sure he'd go to jail. In a repeat performance last year, the dozer driver thought he might just push through the gate anyway. "They were trying to figure out if they could run me over with that blade they had," he says. "The sheriff told them, 'You better not. You're asking for trouble if you do that.'"
Velasquez dotes on his grandson, a blue-eyed toddler with his own hat and pony who lives next door and loves to ride on the tractor with his granddad. "I've got plans for him," Velasquez says. "I don't know how much of it will be left, but he'll take over what we've got. If he wants it." Whatever the boy decides, the Rosa won't be part of his future. Velasquez sold off his share in 2006, a sacrifice to the gods of the gas patch.
This work was produced with the support of the Alicia Patterson Foundation (Washington, D.C.), founded in 1965 to promote independent journalism.