- The BLM offered 173 parcels for September lease sale.
- Environmentalists worried many parcels were in environmentally sensitive areas.
- The BLM deferred 31 parcels near Carlsbad Caverns after numerous protests.
Two groups file protests of sale, citing lack of analysis and transparency
A contested lease sale of federal land in southeast New Mexico to oil and gas developers is moving forward with 31 parcels deferred, after environmentalists said that the land was too close to environmentally sensitive areas near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced the revised sale in a Tuesday news release.
The deferrals cut the offered tracts down from 173 to 142, totaling 50,792 acres.
The sale, scheduled for Sept. 5 and 6, includes 56 parcels in Eddy County, 68 in Lea County and 18 in Chaves County.
Two environmentalist organizations filed protests of the sale in July, citing environmental concerns and a lack of federal transparency, records show.
The Coalition to Protect America’s parks named parcels near Carlsbad Caverns as problematic and called on the BLM to defer the sale until the BLM’s Carlsbad Resource Management Plan (RMP) was updated.
A draft RMP was released on Aug. 3, opening the 90-day public comment period, and nine public meetings across the region.
“These parcels should not be considered for leasing until BLM has conducted a more thorough analysis of potential impacts to national park resources and values and to the water supply for the City of Carlsbad, New Mexico,” wrote Philip Francis, Coalition chair, in the protest letter.
“Such analysis should include the completion of the pending Carlsbad Resources Management Plan (RMP) revision and environmental impact statement (EIS), which is anticipated in 2019.”
The organization also pointed to a 10-day scoping period, held April 9 to 20 as inadequate to address potential concerns, questioning the BLM’s adherence to the “spirit” of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and a lack of opportunity for comment on the agency’s environmental assessment (EA).
Past sales in December 2017, March and June had a 30-day comment period, records show.
“The brevity or complete lack of public comment opportunities for the September 2018 lease sale documents is unreasonable and violates the intent and spirit of (NEPA),” Francis wrote.
“We strenuously object to this flawed interpretation and radical revision of longstanding NEPA practices. Limiting public comment to a list of 173 parcels, with no information whatsoever about potential resource impacts or use stipulations, is not reasonable or sufficient public participation.”
Francis also said the environmental assessment fails to address protection of public land and resources within Carlsbad Caverns, citing the National Park Service Organic Act's – which created the NPS – conservation mandate.
He said the cave system at Carlsbad Caverns is largely undiscovered, and surveying has increased the size of the cave by 40 percent since the 1988 RMP was last amended in 1997.
Amid growing extraction of oil and gas in the region, Francis said the current RMP is insufficient to address current concerns.
“These RMPs did not contemplate advances in oil and gas extraction technologies, including the widespread use of hydraulic fracking and directional drilling. Fracking, in particular, was a relatively uncommon technology in 1997, but is now commonly used and the adverse impacts are well documented,” Francis wrote.
“We fully support BLM’s decision to defer leasing of the 31 parcels identified earlier in our comments. BLM should wait until it has completed the pending RMP revision and EIS before considering any further leasing near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.”
In the WidEarth Guardian’s protest letter, the organization demanded all 142 parcels be deferred, arguing that the sale does not comply with NEPA because it did not adequately address environmental concerns.
The organization also called on the BLM to wait for the RMP to be completed, along with an EA.
“The BLM’s recommended approval of parcels with the Carlsbad Field Office for the September 2018 lease sale directly violates these provisions,” read the letter. “Once the lease sale is held, BLM will no longer be able to consider an alternative that forbids oil and gas development on these parcels even if the agency determines that is necessary.
“This is also exactly the situation NEPA seeks to protect against – having an agency commit to new activity that predetermines its analysis and limits its future alternatives.”
In the BLM’s draft EA, the agency identified the 31 parcels to be deferred as located near or having potential impacts on drinking water supplied to Carlsbad residents through the Capitan Aquifer connected to the Caverns’ underground cave system.
The EA posed two alternatives. One would cancel the sale entirely, and another that deferred the 31 parcels and moved forward with leasing the rest of the land.
The agency ultimately chose the latter.
“A number of the parcels proposed for deferral under the Alternative B are thought to be connected to City of Carlsbad’s primary drinking water supply, the Capitan Aquifer, by way of a permeable cave and karst system,” read the EA.
“Moreover, a subset of parcels are also within the boundary of the City of Carlsbad’s Water Supply Field, an area that contains wells used to pump groundwater from the Capitan Aquifer. Another subset of parcels proposed for deferral under Alternative B are located on cave or karst features and or lie within a mile of Carlsbad Cavern National Park.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.