Restoring New Mexico’s Natural Gas Fields
If you find yourself traveling in the Four Corners region of Northwestern New Mexico you’ll see many fine sights – broad mesas with pinon pines, red rocked desert towers, Anasazi ruins and historic frontier towns. Look closely and you may catch a glimpse of local wildlife such as Gambel’s quail, mule deer or elk. In addition you’ll see oil and gas activity – over 20,000 wells are producing in the region’s San Juan Basin.
Since discovery in the 1920s, the San Juan Basin has pumped out 36 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Today it’s the nation’s second largest source of gas. The vast mineral wealth below ground has transformed the local economy above. “This was a very vibrant ranching community before,” says retired rancher Don Schreiber. “It’s pretty much a monoculture of oil and gas now. There’s virtually no one left here.”
The San Juan’s long-lived gas boom has changed more than the community – it has changed the natural landscape. On this topic Don and his wife Jane Schreiber see big room for improvement starting in their own backyard. Quite literally, in fact, as 99 gas wells reside within the 5,760 acre Devil’s Spring Ranch and grazing allotments. The ranch, sitting mostly on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, has a split deed granting the Schreibers surface rights and energy company ConocoPhillips (COP) mineral rights, common throughout the West.
In 2007, ConocoPhillips informed the Schreibers of its plans to ramp up new drilling activity threefold, prompting the couple to reevaluate drilling impacts and also their role as stewards of the land. With the help of nonprofit Holistic Management International (HMI), they decided to conduct a study of the ranch’s gas well sites previously restored to BLM standards. The Schreiber’s conclusion: “Our experience shows us that the BLM standards don’t really make a big contribution out here.”
A Bland Recipe
The central critique of BLM’s current restoration standard is that it requires actions rather than results. For example, two acres of land can be restored immediately after construction of a new gas well. The oil company is required to reshape the land with mechanical equipment and throw grass seed on the ground. If grass doesn’t grow in two years, it must throw seed down again. At this point, regardless of what does or doesn’t grow, the oil company has fulfilled its obligation.
Not surprisingly this restoration recipe does not produce an abundance of sustainable grasslands. A study on the Schreiber’s ranch found that half of restored areas end up as bare ground with topsoil vulnerable to wind and rain. Undesirable weeds and woody plants, not typical in untouched areas, cover another quarter. Successful growth of grass occurs on less than a quarter of the land deemed restored.
As the Schreibers see it, that’s not good enough. “An oil company is told to put eggs and flour in there,” Don says, “but if it doesn’t make a cake that’s just fine. What’s missing are incentives for companies to surpass the standard or find ways that work better.”
Improving the Recipe
Concerned, the Schreibers took the risky step of appealing to BLM. “We were fortunate to be able to engage a federal bureaucracy that can be very mystifying to us and our neighbors.” The BLM did listen and in January 2008 issued a suspension of all new drilling at Devil’s Spring Ranch. Don acknowledges “it was this federal protection that got us to first base” and brought ConocoPhillips seriously to the table. Recognizing a unique opportunity, the Schreibers built on their partnership with nonprofit HMI and reached out to political representatives such as Senators Jeff Bingaman (D–NM) and Mark Udall (D–CO), and Representatives Ben Lujan (D–NM) and Harry Teague (D–NM).
“There’s a growing recognition in the general public of the need for land stewardship,” says Tracy Favre, senior director of contract services at HMI, a New Mexico nonprofit with 26 years’ experience improving ecosystem functions for landowners and wildlife. “At BLM this makes it conducive to look at something more innovative.”
This innovation is taking form in what has become the Open Space Pilot Project, a working partnership between BLM, Devil’s Spring Ranch, HMI and ConocoPhillips. The partnership has already achieved several of its goals. Ninety percent of new wells planned by Conoco at Devil’s Spring Ranch will now share pads with existing wells. This technique, called ‘twinning,’ saves the construction of new roads, pipelines and well pads. The pilot project also has upgraded 23 miles of existing road using a Zeedyk design to reduce erosion and return more water in a beneficial way to the land.
The large remaining task facing the Open Space Pilot Project is sustainable restoration of native grasses around well sites. Holistic techniques employed at one well site in Devil’s Spring produced nearly 100 percent grass cover, a promising sign but small first step. Assuming funding is obtained, the Schreibers and HMI hope to comprehensively restore 44 well sites, scientifically monitor results for a five-year period, and then teach other ranchers their techniques.
By Don’s estimation, “The cost to properly restore the well sites would be less than one percent of the overall well development cost, but a healthy and aesthetic restoration supporting wildlife is one area where the public can see a real benefit.”
Tracy Favre insists, “We can’t think about this as a single ranch restoration but a step in restoring an entire watershed.” A wider view yet may be justified if BLM’s toolkit or policies are updated. Booming domestic natural gas production has raised the profile of gas drillers and the associated environmental concerns. Leaders of the recent unconventional gas boom nationally include Chesapeake Energy (CHK), Southwestern Energy (SWN) and XTO Energy (XTO).
The Open Space Pilot Project has shown one route for addressing the environmental concerns of natural gas drilling – diverse multi-party partnerships between business, landowners, government and nonprofits. “All parties in the project are willing and congenial,” says Tracy Favre, “and they have a long history together primarily due to Don’s efforts. At meetings they all are joking around. With a little gentle ribbing, yes, but all very respectful of each other.”