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BLM holds NM meeting on oil and gas leasing proposal, seeks input

Fossil fuel production near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico on Feb. 10, 2017.
Mark Watson via Flickr
Fossil fuel production near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

The Bureau of Land Management has proposed comprehensive changes to its rules for oil and gas leasing on federal land for the first time since 1988. The revision is designed to increase industry returns for taxpayers while also reducing harm to wildlife and cultural resources. New Mexicans are invited to attend an information session in Albuquerque Tuesday to learn more about it ahead of submitting input.

The proposed Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Rule would update the agency’s leasing process as part of its effort to better balance development with conservation.

“The BLM would conduct a review to see if there’s important wildlife habitat, if there are important ecological resources or water sources, or cultural resources,” said Ernie Atencio, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. The organization earlier this year included Carlsbad Caverns and Chaco Culture National Historical Park on its shortlist of parks most threatened by oil and gas drilling.

The proposal stipulates that BLM will deprioritize leasing land with those features for extraction in favor of parcels with existing infrastructure or a potential for high production. Atencio said his organization strongly supports the proposal even though it doesn’t prohibit the bureau from leasing culturally- or ecologically-significant land.

“We would trust that BLM staff would make good decisions around this,” Atencio said of electing to not lease certain parcels. “And of course NPCA and other organizations will be watching to make sure that they do.”

The rule would also impact financial elements of fossil fuel development on public lands.

It reflects requirements of the Inflation Reduction Act, including increasing minimum bids, fees for expressing interest in a parcel, as well as royalty and rental rates.

Atencio said New Mexicans would particularly benefit from proposed changes to bonding requirements.

Oil and gas operators must be covered by a bond before they disturb the land they’re leasing from the federal government.

“So that if for some reason they leave it behind, there is a financial bond in place to restore that area,” he said.

But BLM hasn’t increased the minimum amount of those bonds in over 60 years. The new amounts would be 15 to 25 times higher. The smallest individual bond would increase from $10,000 to $150,000 and statewide bonds would go from a minimum of $25,000 to $500,000.

“So, that’s a big thing because currently there are thousands of abandoned and orphaned wells around the West,” Atencio said. “Citizens are on the hook for that through our tax dollars.”

The proposal would also institute a four-year cap for how long a well can be “temporarily” abandoned, in line with requirements in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel advocates argue the higher costs for operators could stifle oil and gas development, which contributes to around half of New Mexico’s projected budget for the 2024 fiscal year, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

Holly Hopkins, vice president of the American Petroleum Institute,told the Associated Press that the proposal is “yet another attempt to add even more barriers to future energy production.”

BLM is accepting public comment until Sept. 22, 2023. The agency is hosting five public meetings on the proposal in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and online to better inform members of the public and their comments.

The only in-person meeting in New Mexico will be held Tuesday, Aug. 22, at 3:00 p.m. at Albuquerque’s Crowne Plaza. A virtual meeting is scheduled for Sept. 19 at 12:30. Video is also available to rewatch the first virtual meeting, which was on Aug. 14.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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