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In this KUNM series, reporter Laura Paskus explores natural gas drilling and the burgeoning oil industry in northwestern New Mexico--its benefits, impacts, and future. Funding provided by the New Venture Fund.

Pipeline Plan Ignites Controversy

Laura Paskus

UPDATE 2/12: All told, the BLM ended up receiving about 30,000 comments on the proposed Piñon Pipeline. That's according to Victoria Barr of the BLM's Farmington Field Office who discussed oil and gas development in northwestern New Mexico on the KUNM Call In Show.   


For some eight decades, companies have drilled for natural gas in the San Juan Basin. There are thousands of miles of gas pipelines networked across northwestern New Mexico, but plans to transport crude oil out of the same area are raising serious questions—about pipelines, but also about new development in the San Juan Basin.

If you’ve tried to pull onto U.S. Highway 550 near Counselor or Lybrook, New Mexico, in the past few months, you’ve probably had to wait a while.

There are more than 50 new oil wells in this immediate area. When they’re first being drilled, each requires a lot of workers—and trucks. Then, once the oil starts flowing, the product is loaded into semi-trucks that rumble down the narrow dirt roads and pull onto the highway, headed for rail lines and markets.

There is another way to transport the oil. That is, by pipeline.

“What we know is from the production that's there now, there's a better way to be able to gather it, collect it and move it, so that's how we base our business plan,” says David Wait, Chief Operating Officer of Saddle Butte Pipeline, based in Durango, Colorado.

His company would like to build a pipeline that would run 130 miles from Lybrook down to the rail lines along Interstate-40 in the western New Mexico towns of Prewitt or Milan.

The pipeline would parallel an existing natural gas line, running through private, federal, state and Navajo lands. Wait adds, “We look at this as a great opportunity to minimize the risks from trucking, a great opportunity to be able to crude oil in the safest possible way.” Local residents agree the roads are being chewed up. They say the semis drive too fast. And they worry about school buses sharing those roads.

But they’re worried about more than the traffic. 

Last month, almost a 150 people squeezed into a room at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s office in Santa Fe for a meetingon the Piñon Pipeline, which Saddle Butte hopes to build.

Adding another 130 miles of pipeline to the thousands of miles already out there might not seem like such a big deal.

But the Piñon Pipeline would be one of the first crude oil pipelines in northwestern New Mexico.

Credit Laura Paskus
Archaeologist Rebecca Proctor spoke about the proposed pipeline before a full house at the BLM's meeting in Santa Fe last month.

“I’ll keep my comments as close to the technical as possible,” said archaeologist Rebecca Proctor, at the meeting last month. “But I don’t want anyone here to think that that means that I don’t understand the incredible potential for destruction to the things I’ve spent my life trying to understand, explore and protect.”

Proctor worries development will destroy archaeological sites. Environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club have expressed similar concerns.

Some Navajo people—many who drove a hundred and fifty miles to attend the meeting—spoke passionately against the pipeline and development. But a few say they want the pipeline.

“I live like five miles where that line’s going to lay,” said Matthew Sandoval, who identified himself as a welder and a 14-year member of Pipeliners Local Union 798. He explained that he’d spoken with cousins, nephews, brothers and others who live nearby—and they all want the line because it will mean work.

Sandoval also said during his comments that union members have been told the pipeline plan is already “set in stone.”

The pipeline is igniting so much interest in part because for some, it’s not just about one pipeline. Under the current rules, companies are still supposed to be exploring for oil—not technically producing oil.

Some local residents and environmental groups fear that if the pipeline is built, oil drilling will take off before it’s properly regulated.

Currently, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) is promoting new infrastructure in the basin. That’s according to an emailed statement from public information officer Jim Winchester. Winchester writes:

Saddle Butte is requesting a right-of-way grant for approximately 130 miles of gathering and transport pipelines to gather produced crude oil from the Lybrook area and transport it to a rail facility where the product can ultimately reach market. The total right-of-way is 75 feet wide including 40 feet of permanent and 35 feet of temporary work space. The need for the project is to provide adequate takeaway capacity for the large amount of product currently under extraction and to meet the need to transport future volumes. Currently one (smaller) pipeline and trucking are the only available ways to export the crude out of the area to any delivery point. Saddle Butte proposes to alleviate the restriction by building the Piñon Pipeline system, thereby providing ample capacity for the current predictions of crude oil production. The proposed pipeline route would be designed to accommodate initial startup volumes of 15,000 barrels per day of oil from Lybrook and would follow existing pipeline/utility corridors wherever possible to minimize the surface impact and resource conflicts. The installation of a new pipeline will reduce traffic congestion and vehicle accidents by taking hundreds of trucks off local roads and highways as well as reducing the carbon footprint from the trucks. OCD has no stance on support or opposition of the pipeline but agrees the infrastructure is needed to provide adequate takeaway capacity for the large amount of product currently being produced and to meet the need to transport future volumes of product produced in the San Juan Basin.

No one from OCD, the state’s Environment Department, or the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department would be interviewed for this story.

Victoria Barr is the BLM’sFarmington Field Office district manager—and she says the agency appreciates all the input it receives.

Since the public comment  period ended last month, the agency has been going through the 7,400 comments it received. “And we read through them,” says Barr. “I think it’s great so many people want to be involved and submit a comment on a project on public lands.”

But, it’s not like BLM staff look at the comments, tally who’s for and who’s against the pipeline, and then make a decision.  That’s not how the process works.

Rather, at this stage—the “scoping stage”—the agency is looking for substantive comments: Technical comments that might point out flaws in the design, for example. Or problems with the route.

This summer the BLM will release what’s called an Environmental Assessment, and Barr says the public will be able to weigh in again. The agency will also study how a new pipeline might affect everything including plant and animal species, archaeological sites, communities, and even real estate.

If those impacts are significant, they’ll do more studies. But if not, the agency can approve Saddle Butte’s permit for a pipeline right-of-way.

Right now, Saddle Butte’s Chief Operator David Wait can’t say how much the pipeline might cost—or who the investors are. “The rest of that’s going to have to come downstream in the process,” he says. “This is just the beginning of the process.”

The BLM’s Victoria Barr emphasizes that, too.

“Just because a proponent has submitted an application for a right-of-way does not mean the decision will be to grant a right-of-way,” she says. “It’s a process.”

But, she says people should remember the BLM has amulti-use mission.  The federal agency has to make way for people, plants and animals, as well as and power lines, oil and gas development—and sometimes, pipelines.

Funding for KUNM’s new series Drilling Deep comes from the New Venture Fund. 

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