Court's rejection of drilling in New Mexico's Otero Mesa may be heard across the West

Otero Mesa. Photo by Stephen Capra.

Our 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 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.

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:

"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:

"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 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.

Photo: Otero Mesa by Stephen Capra.