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By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press Writer


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—A Roswell company learned Friday that it’s one step closer to being able to drill an exploratory natural gas well on southern New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, but critics are crying foul.

The Bureau of Land Management has approved a final environmental assessment of plans by the Harvey E. Yates Co. of Roswell, known as Heyco, to drill on the mesa.

The BLM has laid out several requirements for Heyco to ensure the company protects the area, but environmentalists and others opposed to oil and gas development on the mesa say the decision is “bad news.”

“Drilling Otero Mesa will not only damage a fragile ecosystem, wildlife habitat and wilderness quality lands, it flies in the face of increasing public support for keeping drilling rigs off of the mesa,” said Deanna Archuleta, southwest regional director of The Wilderness Society. “While local governments such as the city councils of Las Cruces and El Paso have passed resolutions calling for protection of Otero Mesa, the BLM remains stonefaced and seems determined to allow destruction of this beautiful place.”

The mesa is one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan desert and is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

The mesa also includes an aquifer that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may contain as much as 15 million acre-feet of fresh water, which could be tapped to supply communities in southern New Mexico.

With BLM’s approval of Heyco’s drilling permit, the company’s well pad cannot be bigger than 3.7 acres and 1.5 acres of it must be reclaimed once drilling is complete. Heyco must also triple-case its well to protect groundwater and use low-profile tanks.

BLM spokesman Hans Stuart said other provisions are spelled out for certain species of plants and animals, including the northern aplomado falcon.

The environmental assessments states well pads should be as small as possible and any pits should be netted to keep the birds out. Pads and any roads should be located away from nesting sites and surveys should be done during breeding season to determine if falcons are in the area.

Nicole Rosmarino of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians said Friday the proposed well would be in the heart of falcon territory.

“Otero Mesa provides vital and irreplaceable habitat for the endangered aplomado falcon and a rich web of life and shouldn’t be sacrificed to make big oil richer,” she said.

According to the BLM, contractors have conducted falcon surveys in the area for the past several years. Some sightings have occurred in spring 2006 and 2007 but follow-up surveys have not resulted in additional sightings or nesting activity.

Rosmarino argued that Otero Mesa is considered key habitat for the falcon’s recovery and it’s one of the few places in New Mexico where wild falcons are still sighted.

Drilling opponents, including state leaders, also have voiced concerns about the native grasses and plants that could be impacted.

Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Joanna Prukop said Friday that simply reclaiming disturbed areas around a well pad with any seed mix is not good enough.

“We really want restoration and that means you go back in and restore the area, the plant species particularly that are native to the area,” she said. “That’s what our whole concern is, maintaining that Chihuahuan desert ecosystem.”

She added that weather patterns and moisture are also key components to restoration.

“If an area is disturbed and you don’t get any moisture to help with the restoration of the vegetation, then we will still have strong concerns about the delicate nature of the Chihuahuan desert,” she said.

Prukop said the state, which has been critical of BLM’s plans for oil and gas development on Otero Mesa, has developed its own special rules for regulating activity in the area. She said companies like Heyco must still apply to the state for permits to manage their drilling waste and the state Oil Conservation Division can ensure that the mesa is protected.