Linn Blancett pulls his pickup truck to a stop and lets out a weary sigh. “You see that area there,” he says, pointing to a patch of land that borders a well pad pumping out gas, the surface once covered with grass now bare. “That’s supposed to be reseeded.” We are in the northwest corner of New Mexico, a few miles from the Colorado border, in the heart of the San Juan Basin, a bowl-shaped, 7,500-square-mile expanse that sits atop one of the largest natural-gas reserves in the country. Linn Blancett and his wife, Tweeti, have been running cattle here for much of their lives. Their ranch stretches across 32,000 acres of mostly federal land, hilly, high-desert terrain where the Blancetts first settled as homesteaders six generations ago, back in the 1870s.
On this morning, though, several hours into our trek across the range, we’ve yet to spot any cattle. What we have seen plenty of are roads, pipelines and drilling rigs. Such oil and gas activity generates millions of dollars in profits for companies like Burlington and British Petroleum–and may be reshaping the politics of the Rocky Mountain West in ways that will reverberate in the presidential election this fall.
At the heart of the controversy lies a drilling method known as coal-bed methane extraction, a technique pioneered in the late 1980s that enables companies to suck natural gas out of the coal seams that lie buried beneath the San Juan Basin and other formations. Beginning under the Clinton Administration, the federal government pushed to expand production of this comparatively clean-burning fossil fuel, although Clinton also protected millions of acres of public land from drilling. The Bush Administration, by contrast, has called for removing all “restrictions and impediments” on domestic development, code language for opening dozens of pristine natural habitats to unfettered leasing.
It’s a policy that has pleased industry but antagonized a growing chorus of ranchers, hunters and property owners, people who tend to be politically conservative yet find themselves making alliances with strange bedfellows–Native American groups, environmental organizations–in a common effort to protect their livelihoods and land. Natural gas may be relatively clean to burn, these critics note, but getting it out of the ground wreaks havoc on the environment in other ways. For one thing, accessing the gas trapped in coal seams requires companies to pump millions of gallons of water out of the ground, depleting aquifers and bringing to the surface huge amounts of sodium-laden waste water that can destroy vegetation. Drilling on the scale now taking place in the West, moreover, can cause erosion and surface disturbances that will permanently scar the landscape of one of the nation’s most spectacular regions and poses a long-term threat to livestock and wildlife.
A tour of the Blancett ranch underscores the problems. At several of the wells where we stop, tanks dripping ethylene glycol (antifreeze) have not been properly fenced, leaving a toxic stew from which cattle can drink–and die. At others, barrels have not been netted. Trucks hurtle past us on roads that seem to be everywhere. Roads built too wide have destroyed vegetation in some areas; pipelines have not been reseeded in others. There are places where the ground is stained black from overspray and other byproducts that are less visible but potentially more hazardous. Emissions from the more than 400 wells on the Blancett allotment contribute to the estimated 6,900 tons of volatile organic compounds and 29,000 tons of nitrogen oxide that the oil and gas industry emits in San Juan County each year, creating surface ozone levels close to the EPA’s maximum allowable standards.