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Ruling Against Drilling New Mexico’s Otero Mesa May be Heard Throughout West

Ruling Against Drilling New Mexico’s Otero Mesa May be Heard Throughout West

A victory on New Mexico’s Otero Mesa this week took a turn for the pithy in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision rejecting the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas drilling scheme for the mesa.

If you’re not familiar with Otero Mesa, it occupies a blank spot on the map between Las Cruces and Carlsbad, and, at 1.2 million acres, it’s the largest untouched Chihuahuan Desert grassland found anywhere in the United States.

In a decision with implications for public land targeted for drilling all across the West, the court ruled that leaving land untouched for conservation values is part of the BLM’s multiple use mandate just as oil and gas development is. Both have to be considered just as seriously when the BLM is deciding whether to allow drilling.

The April 27 decision came through a lawsuit brought by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society.

It is significant because it could lead to the rebalancing of Bush Administration land policies that grossly favored industrial use and development of western public lands above environmental protection–despite laws that require the government to strike a balance between uses of the land.

This is how the court put it: 

“It is past doubt that the principle of multiple use does not require the BLM to prioritize development over other uses. Development is a possible use, which the BLM must weigh against other possible uses – including conservation to protect environmental values.”

And about the BLM’s decision to change its drilling plan for Otero Mesa without saying much to the public and without analyzing the new plan’s impacts, the court said this: 

“We would not say that analyzing the likely impacts of building a dirt road along the edge of an ecosystem excuses an agency from analyzing the impacts of building a four-lane highway straight down the middle simply because the type of impact – habitat disturbance – is the same under either scenario.”

And, in ruling that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to adequately study the impacts of drilling on an aquifer underneath Otero Mesa and then declared the impact to be minimal, the court said this:

 “We are wholly unable to say with any confidence that BLM ‘examined the relevant data’ regarding the Salt Basin Aquifer before determining that impacts on the aquifer would be ‘minimal,’” the court said in its decision.

The record doesn’t say a thing about how the BLM determined drilling would have minimal impact on the aquifer, the court said. And that means NEPA was violated.

The bottom line: Otero Mesa wins in this round, and it could mean we’ve entered a new era of conservation-minded decision-making all across the West.

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15 comments

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6:01PM PDT on May 2, 2009

YEA!!!!!!!!!! Conservation should always take precedence over development. Drilling most likely would have polluted the aquifer and roads, even dirt ones, would have had a major negative impact on the ecosystem & environment of that area. Kudos to the judge for ruling against BLM. Now if only the Obama administration & the courts would do more to reverse the shrub administration's harmful decisions, especially on protecting wolves & polar bears, we would really be on our way to putting things right in nature.

9:18AM PDT on May 1, 2009

I must congratulate the court.

I must send kudos, butterflies, green stars and stars of all the colours in the rainbow to the petitioners, the Wilderness Sociey.

I wish the wisdom of this rubs off on our government in Sikkim who seem to consider that wilderness is yet another resource to be exploited for personal enrichment. The multiple dams in the name of the power production have already endangered the precarious geology, botany and biology of the Khangchendzonga National Park in Dzongu Area of Sikkim. Our rivers (Teesta and Rangeet) are dry; our weather is hot and OUR POLITICIANS ARE RICHER. With all that my soft spoken demeanour has turned into a clarion call for restraining them and ceasing this stupidity that people of Sikkim and Mother Nature suffer.

Congratulations once again to the Wilderness Society and compliments to the Court. May the wisdom of both be contagious.

8:13AM PDT on May 1, 2009

Bobby - thanks for the posting!

8:07AM PDT on May 1, 2009

ONE BIG MISTAKE was made here: BLM decision makers should have been questioned in the court. They are the ones responsible for the BLM's failure to follow the rules.

7:54AM PDT on May 1, 2009

God created that land so therefore it should be left alone and all the animals therein and that is the way it should be in so many other places no questions asked and that is a fact.

7:40AM PDT on May 1, 2009

Amen

6:46AM PDT on May 1, 2009

Hurray for the judge. Another piece of God's property goes unscathed.

6:43AM PDT on May 1, 2009

At last we have good news about this plan. Drilling on this fragile piece of earth could have had devastating results; destruction of a delicately balanced eco-system AND pollution of the water supply.

5:45AM PDT on May 1, 2009

Another piece of land saved.

4:51AM PDT on May 1, 2009

Add one more Amen for a beautiful, natural piece of land that will stay beautiful and natural!

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