By | The Associated Press

1/14/2008 –

Gov. Bill Richardson and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Joanna Prukop said Monday that an environmental assessment done by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on an application for a permit to drill on Otero Mesa is insufficient.

The state is calling on the BLM to do a full environmental impact statement on the application of Harvey E. Yates Co. The Roswell-based business known as Heyco has proposed putting a natural gas well on land it leases in the area.

Prukop sent a letter Monday to the BLM, saying the state was concerned the agency’s review of Heyco’s application was incomplete and based on outdated information. “The adverse repercussions to the environment are irrecoverable if oil and gas exploration continues without more in-depth study,” Prukop said in a statement.

Richardson called Otero Mesa a “precious area.” “It is critical that every safety measure be taken to protect ground water and native plant and animal species from the activities involved with oil and gas operations,” the governor said.

BLM officials could not immediately be reached for comment Monday evening. A message seeking comment also was left at Heyco’s office in Roswell.

The BLM has proposed opening parts of the 2 million-acre mesa to drilling.

Out of the 2 million acres, a total of 1,589 would be disturbed by drilling practices such as additional roads, well pads and pipelines under the BLM plan. In addition, no more than 5 percent can be disturbed on the grasslands at any specific time.

BLM officials have argued that the agency, in developing its plan for Otero Mesa, went to great lengths to ensure protecting the ecosystem while serving the needs of land-use parties.

Otero Mesa has one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan Desert and the nation’s largest contiguous patch of black gramma grass, which takes decades to re-establish. It also is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

Critics have claimed the BLM failed to properly evaluate whether building roads, pipelines, well pads and other structures would damage the area’s ecosystem.

Prukop continued to raise those arguments in the eight-page letter she sent Monday to John Besse, head of the BLM office in Las Cruces.

She wrote that the environmental assessment done on Heyco’s application for a drilling permit focused on only one well. She contends the BLM also should have addressed what she called “the reasonably foreseeable large number of wells” that will likely be drilled on Otero Mesa.

She also complained the assessment did not contemplate what the production of the Heyco well — and the production of any future wells — would mean for the environment. Specifically, she said the BLM should have adequately addressed what impact pipelines and roads would have on the mesa.

Prukop also brought up the water below the mesa, saying the aquifer is believed to contain about 15 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.

Data being collected about soil in the region indicates the aquifer could be vulnerable to surface contaminates, she said.

“Given the amount of oil and gas development that is being planned for this geographic area and the amount of disturbance that the proposed development would entail, the movement of surface contaminants to the aquifer below a significant concern and warrants additional investigation and evaluation,” Prukop wrote.