Politics and Gas Fuel Battle over New Mexico Forest
SANTA FE, New Mexico A Texas energy company may get rights to drill in a pristine swathe of a New Mexico national forest after a White House task force intervened on its behalf, a move that has become a hot issue in the battleground state of New Mexico before next week's presidential election.
Oil giant Pennzoil donated the 40,000-acre parcel in northern New Mexico known as Valle Vidal for conservation in 1982, and it has been a protected wildlife and recreation area as part of the Carson National Forest.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Houston, Texas&3150based oil company El Paso Corp., a large donor to Republican campaigns and candidates, asked the White House's energy task force in 2003 to intervene on its behalf with the Forest Service.
The Forest Service had three times previously rejected its requests to drill in the area, saying it would threaten wildlife, including roaming elk herds and 200 species of birds.
After the request from El Paso, the government's energy task force last year asked Carson National Forest to reconsider the company's request and give an "expedited response" as to whether it could drill in the area, the documents show.
Then in August, the Forest Service took the first step toward allowing El Paso to drill in Valle Vidal by releasing a report that said there was a high probability of recovering gas in the area and envisioning that some day there could be 500 wells there. The next steps will be an environmental impact study and a period of public comment before a final decision.
The move has sparked an uproar in New Mexico, a swing state in the presidential election.
"The Bush administration has allowed oil and gas interests to put the Valle Vidal development request on a fast track," said Joanna Prukop, New Mexico's secretary of energy, minerals, and natural resources.
El Paso officials did not return calls seeking comment on the matter.
Forest Service Says No Pressure
Forest Service officials deny receiving any pressure from the White House, saying the pace of their review has not changed despite the appeal from El Paso,
"We received a request from El Paso ... and we're currently working to include the Valle Vidal in our forest management plans, to look at it with oil and gas in mind," said Carson National Forest spokesman Benjamin Romero.
The White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining was created in 2001 with the aim of searching for new sources of energy.
The Bush administration has been pushing for changes to policies on federal lands that would allow for greater use of them by commercial interests, such as oil companies much to the anguish of conservationists.
New Mexico is one of the leading natural-gas producing states in the country, and proceeds from the energy industry play a key part of the state's finances.
The issue has turned some New Mexico Republicans who want to see Valle Vidal preserved for hunting and camping against the Bush administration. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who was secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, has vowed to fight any efforts at drilling.
"I have Texans mad as hell because this is their recreation area," said Oscar Simpson, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Valle Vidal, which is fighting to keep El Paso out. Simpson is a Republican in the coalition that has joined hunters, ranchers, and environmentalists to protect the land.
Valle Vidal, which means "valley of life" in Spanish, is home to to the largest Boy Scouts of America camp and was originally donated by oil company Pennzoil, which has ceased to exist due to a series of mergers and buyouts. It gave the land in exchange for a tax deduction, and part of the deal called for the land to be protected.
The Valle is only a small part 1 percent according to Simpson of a much larger Raton basin that is already being explored for oil and gas development, including the nearby Vermejo Ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner. El Paso acquired drilling rights in the area before Turner, a conservationist, bought land there.
Simpson said the interlinking road system for hundreds of wells is what most destroys the habitat. If the habitat is fragmented, the Valle Vidal's enormous elk population will not mate. Noise from compressor stations, 24-hour maintenance trucks, and the pollution of groundwater are also concerns.
"They say they're only drilling in small areas, but everything gets disturbed. It's a spider web effect," said Simpson.
Simpson said opponents to the plan are fighting for permanent protection of the area and that any drilling would not be worth the trade off.
"If they drilled the entire area, it would only produce one to 30 hours a half-day of gas for the nation. But we would lose the Valle Vidal forever," he said.