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A Cowboy’s Lament

Energy companies declare open season on New Mexico

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

When cattle rancher Chris Velasquez points to where both he and his father were raised, I have to use my imagination. We’re parked atop a vertigo-inducing earthen dam in the San Juan Basin, in northwestern New Mexico’s arid sandstone and sagebrush country. The Velasquez spread, settled by Chris’s grandfather, lies buried here at the bottom of Navajo Lake. Reflected in the reservoir are fat black rain clouds–a blessed sight after three years of drought. Beyond the lake, forage, sparse in the best of times, is desiccated as far as the eye can see; piñons are beetle-infested, rust-colored, dead.

Velasquez, 50, speaks without bitterness of how his family was relocated downstream when he was young so that Farmington and other agricultural regions in the Four Corners area could thrive. But when he tips his black cowboy hat toward the oil and gas wells that pock the land around Navajo Lake–then rolls down his pickup window to let in the sound of a revving compressor that pushes natural gas down the pipeline–his equanimity fades like sunlight behind a thunderhead.

Polite, soft-spoken, and handsomely dressed in his jeans, shined black boots, and a long-sleeve plaid cowboy shirt a city man could never wear convincingly, Velasquez’s dark Spanish eyes are intense. "This was good range, but I don’t think there’s any bringing it back. These energy companies just dig up the country and keep on rolling."

Today, there are about 19,000 producing wells in the San Juan Basin, a roughly circular area about 100 miles across. It currently offers up 8 percent of the nation’s natural gas (most of it from methane coalbeds). Though oil and gas were first discovered in 1921, it wasn’t until the ’50s, when a pipeline was completed that could ship natural gas to California, that New Mexico’s energy boom began. (California today consumes 40 percent of the gas produced in the basin.) There have been lulls, but with the Bush administration’s push to exploit domestic energy sources, drilling has taken on a frenzied pace. The basin’s fragile desert soils, breathtaking mesas, and sandstone canyons–easier to tap because much of the "drilling" has already been done by erosion–have been carved up by pipelines, well pads, and 17,000 miles of roads. In this home of the Dinétah, or Navajo holy land, as well as Anasazi cultural sites dating back 10,000 years, modern energy companies have engaged in a ruinous dig-a-thon.

The lands in most of the San Juan Basin and elsewhere in the resource-rich intermountain West are on what are called "split estates." On private land, most folks actually own only what’s on top: Under the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916, homesteaders received ownership of the surface while the federal government retained ownership of all subsurface minerals. Today, those subsurface rights are leased to energy and mining companies by the Bureau of Land Management. What’s more, the BLM allows subsurface leaseholders to put wells, roads, fences, and pipelines just about anywhere they like on the surface–without asking permission of landowners, or even notifying them, before they move in. The same is true on public lands, where Velasquez and others hold grazing permits while the government leases subsurface rights to energy companies, including ConocoPhillips, BP, and Williams.

According to Steve Henke, the BLM’s Farmington field director since 2001, the basin produced $2.4 billion in oil and gas revenues last year. Calling energy development on the basin’s public lands a "tragedy of the commons" but defending both its quality and pace, Henke adds, "We’re sitting on a world-class resource here."

Henke’s office is also stepping on a lot of toes. And ranchers like Velasquez–fiercely independent, sometimes cantankerous, and almost always politically conservative–are beginning to organize and fight back. Last year, for example, Velasquez and several other ranchers got so fed up with what they see as oil and gas development run amok that they locked the gates to their private land. Colleagues from the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a homegrown environmental group in the basin, accompanied them. (Velasquez, who hadn’t had much use for environmentalists before, became a member two years ago.) The companies called officials at the BLM; it was clear that a rebellion was taking shape. "You can talk all you want, but they don’t respond to nothing but strong tactics," says Velasquez. "After we locked the gates it sort of clipped their wings. They were really going wild before that."

Velasquez has a BLM permit to graze cattle on 20,000 acres in New Mexico’s Rosa and Alamo allotments. There are 373 wells on this public land, with 70 more recently approved for the Williams energy company alone. His 320 acres of private rangeland have been drilled too, with 10 wells so far. The BLM refers to a huge swath that encompasses part of Velasquez’s rangeland as the "sweet area"–not for the beauty of its landscape, which is stark, but because the resource potential beneath the surface is so rich. Velasquez calls it a sacrifice zone.

"In 2000, I had eight cows died in one week," says Velasquez in speech planed like the desert mesas around him, and lightly inflected with Spanish, the only language he spoke until grade school. He paid for an autopsy, which found that the livestock died "acutely" after consuming toxic oil-field byproducts. After a similar incident, he sent a water sample to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. The researcher there found petroleum in high concentrations and urged Velasquez "to prevent access to this water source at all expense, as this can be a serious problem."

All told, Velasquez has lost 80 animals. "I got paid by the oil companies for all those cows that died, but I had to fight for every one." He sold 100 last year and now runs only 70 because of the drilling and the drought. (His 82-year-old father runs another 100 on the same land.) He has made ends meet over the years working as a supervisor on a state road crew, retiring recently after 25 years.

Velasquez, who says he "barely made it out of high school" and rarely travels outside the state, has been to Washington, D.C., twice–testifying before Congress on the problems caused by unchecked oil and gas development.

In Washington (and any other time he gets the chance) Velasquez lists the grievances: cattle and wildlife poisoned by toxic chemicals, including methyl glycol spilled at drill sites; ranch gates left open so livestock escape; range scraped and cleared in one- to six-acre patches for wells; soil eroded by poorly constructed company roads; lack of reseeding on construction sites; and exotic-weed infestations on pipeline scars and well pads.

To date New Mexico representative Tom Udall (D) is the only one who’s given Velasquez a sympathetic ear. "He asked what we needed, and sent his aides out to see what’s going on. He also talked about the need for alternative energy." Velasquez knows the country needs energy, even from oil and natural gas. His problem is with how the development is done. "It’s not that the companies don’t know how to do it right," he says. "The BLM just gives us lip service and keeps approving permits."

The BLM is supposed to ensure proper road construction, for instance, but Henke’s office prefers voluntary compliance (or "productive harmony," as Henke calls it) to fines and litigation. According to Alan Rolston, an organizer for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, this effectively means there are thousands of miles of poorly constructed and maintained roads. "It’s a noble goal to get industry and regulatory agencies to cooperatively solve problems in the basin," says Rolston. "But in reality, industry doesn’t come to the table unless leverage is used." Companies are also required to reseed disturbed areas, keep fencing up and livestock away from on-site toxic chemicals, close gates, and fully reclaim the land and water after a well is no longer producing. "But Farmington doesn’t have enough inspection and enforcement officers to make sure things are done right," Rolston says. An internal BLM audit found that the national average is one inspector for every 350 wells; at the Farmington Field Office, the number is one for every 1,500.

Since 1996, Velasquez had been on the BLM’s Grazing/Oil and Gas Committee–a voluntary group trying to find solutions to conflicts. He quit in frustration this year because the committee never made anything happen, even after he took members on tours of his land. "I showed them fences that were down, wells that were leaking chemicals, reserve pits that weren’t lined," he says, referring to half-acre areas bulldozed to hold the effluvial mix of petrochemicals and water from the drilling process. "That liner is supposed to stop stuff from seeping into the ground, but it’s all ripped. I showed them how they blocked my drainage when they bulldozed a drill pad and how my marsh area just dried up."

The BLM’s Henke counters: "It’s unfortunate that Chris and others can’t take a step back." Henke worked as a BLM range conservationist in the area in the 1980s, has known Velasquez for 20 years, and considers him a friend. "Americans are the largest per capita consumers of energy in the world. There’s a lot of demand. We have domestic sources and we have a president who has emphasized domestic energy production as part of national security. I think ranchers need to have a big-picture view."

The BLM’s new big-picture plan for the region proposes 12,500 new wells with an associated 6,100 well-site compressors, 319 new large transfer compressors, and 800 miles of new roads over the next 20 years. Henke tells me that the companies have voluntarily agreed to fix the main roads within ten years. A skeptical Velasquez later responds: "In ten years I’ll be 60, and ten years after that I’ll be dead. Those companies will be long gone before those roads are ever fixed." He and others have asked that the BLM "not approve any more permits until they get the mess they got cleaned up. We’re not asking for anything more than that."

Rolston of the Citizens Alliance is also concerned with the pace of development. "They have existing oversight problems and yet the BLM continues to approve permits," he says. "The goal should be to ensure that the ecosystem functions–that we don’t permanently harm the complexity, the diversity, and the maze of relationships between soils, vegetation, wildlife, and humans." But that is not, he says, the BLM’s goal.

When I ask Henke about the harm to the desert caused by development, he acknowledges the problem but says "it will heal." In the Mojave Desert, however, tank tracks from World War II—era training exercises still scar the land.

After a heavy rain, Velasquez’s four-wheel-drive pickup is having trouble plying the 12-inch ruts of sticky red mud made by heavy company trucks, many of them moving water from coalbed methane wells to places where they "re-inject" it deep underground. (According to Henke, re-injection reduces potential aquifer contamination–but to date no studies have been done on the effects.) As we drive, Velasquez points to a circling crow, a cuervo he calls it, and tells me how he, his wife, and their two daughters would take horses out to the Rosa grazing allotment while the girls were growing up–from a few days to weeks at a time–chasing stray cows and camping among the junipers and piñons. They would hike the maze-like creekbeds and sandstone canyons, often finding pottery shards and other relics from the Anasazi and Navajo Indian past (there are an estimated 250,000 archaeological sites in the basin). He remembers seeing his daughter Nancy, only five at the time, race over a hill on her pony, yelling and herding cattle in front of her. "I think my kids learned about life out here," he says. "Everything isn’t easy; meals don’t just come to you on a plate."

A few years ago, Velasquez gave up his permit to graze on 10,000 acres of the Rosa. The BLM had told him it wanted the acreage to create a wildlife area for migrating mule deer. We pass through a patch of his permitted land and into the wildlife zone, which also happens to be in the "sweet area." Last year when Velasquez visited, he found 15 dead deer near oil and gas wells. He called the agency and requested an investigation. Biologist John Hansen visited, and he, too, found dead deer. One had been killed by a vehicle, he said in a report, but the others were killed by "poisoning from drinking produced water and other liquid byproducts at well locations." He cited inadequate fencing around wells and reserve pits. Before we leave the area, Velasquez takes me onto adjacent Carson National Forest land; it, too, is riddled with wells.

Later, Velasquez introduces me to his friends Linn and Tweeti Blancett, who run cattle on 33,000 acres near Velasquez’s winter range. Linn has pale blue eyes, a ruddy wind-burned face, and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. Whereas Linn moves his large frame slowly, and speaks infrequently and in a Southwestern twang, his wife flits and buzzes with intensity. As she talks about their fight with energy companies, she’s like a bee caught on the inside of a screen, looking for a way out.

Tweeti was George W. Bush’s campaign coordinator for northern New Mexico in 2000, but now she works at putting the brakes on oil and gas. "I’m a Republican," says Tweeti, "but I’m also a thorn in their side." She joined the San Juan Citizens Alliance, and convinced first Velasquez and then her husband to join as well. "I call it an unholy alliance," says the sixth-generation rancher of her work with the environmental group. "But the truth is, right now we have more that unites us than divides us. If we don’t fix this oil and gas problem we won’t need to argue about grazing, or endangered species, or riparian areas down the line. The land will be ruined."

Linn is still a member of the Grazing/Oil and Gas Committee, though he and Tweeti also joined Velasquez last winter in locking their gates. "My number one issue is that I want to quit finding things on the range that would kill a cow," says Linn. "It’s BLM land and they’re supposed to take care of it; it’s supposed to be multiple use."

Blancett offers Velasquez and me a tour of his operation, and as we head out of Aztec, where the Blancetts also run the Stepback Inn (a conference of extraterrestrial enthusiasts is currently ensconced there), he tries to strike a diplomatic tone. "Oil and gas has a right to get minerals. We need it as a nation. But they need to protect the land." As it is, he says, "any time you tell a company they should ask permission to go on your private property, they say you’re being extreme." He laughs as he tells me what extreme is, like the time he was charged with assault and battery for grabbing a water-truck operator’s shirt after he’d backed over and flattened Blancett’s fence. Velasquez is folded into the backseat of the pickup, egging on his friend. "They say I pack a gun under my driver’s seat," says Blancett, winking at Velasquez, and I believe he does. I certainly wouldn’t want to cross him and find out.

Next to a dry wash off County Road 4955, the current Velasquez spread rises out of the red earth and sagebrush. When I ask to visit, I’m told to look for the yellow Santa Fe Railway boxcar, which is set atilt on uneven ground and easily seen from the road. The family’s six Border collies greet me, then bolt to harass a cream-colored steer in the pasture out back. Seven horses laze in the corral, including Buckaroo, which took Nancy Velasquez to a state championship in pole bending several years ago (think downhill ski slalom, but on a horse). At the house, the noise is mostly from barking dogs, chickens, and a cousin who’s hammering away at a sunroom addition off Velasquez’s kitchen. But at night, when his house quiets down, he gets an unpleasant reminder of where he lives: "I got a huge compressor station two miles from my place," he says. "That thing runs 24 hours a day, and so do the company trucks. There’s no peace and quiet here anymore."

Sitting at their rough-hewn wooden table, I watch through the window as Velasquez’s father collects cedar firewood from a jumbled pile near the boxcar, which appears to serve as a storage room of sorts. Nancy and Velasquez’s wife, Kay, take off on horseback into a stiff wind and threatening clouds. Buckaroo, lame with an injury, has to look on from the corral as the two women disappear into the desert.

The BLM’s Henke had told me that he thought the controversy over energy development was more about "lifestyle and values" than anything else. He added that living with the drilling, pipelines, compressor noise, and roads was the price ranchers like Velasquez pay "for access to the public lands and the multiple-use environment. If they don’t want that environment they should look for an alternative one."

Velasquez moved once in deference to progress when Navajo Lake drowned his family home. He’s got no plans to be forced out again. "Politics and the real world–it’s a frustrating deal," he tells me as we sit together at the table. Just then the door swings wide and his wife and daughter rush in, flushed, laden with eggs from the henhouse. It had been too cold to ride. "By this age I thought I’d be running my cows and kind of be left alone," Velasquez continues. "It hasn’t worked out that way, but I’m in too far to back off of it now. I’m tired of rattling the companies’ cage. I’m at a point where I’m ready to turn it upside down."

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra’s writer/editor.

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