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Environmentalists, Ranchers Take On Oil and Gas Drillers

Citing property damage, the allies block access to wells. Energy group says the sites are permitted.

November 15, 2002|From Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — Environmentalists joined ranchers Thursday as they locked gates to keep oil and gas drillers from using the ranchers' roads to access natural gas wells.

Ranchers in the San Juan Basin blame the drillers for a string of environmental problems, including erosion, water contamination, livestock deaths and a decline in range quality.

"They haven't done no reseeding and the roads are all eroded," Chris Velasquez, a third-generation rancher, said at the gate to one of his ranching allotments about 10 miles northeast of Aztec. It was one of at least three that protesters had locked.

The ranchers said they have vainly sought help from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the state's congressional delegation.

"This is a David-and-Goliath issue, and as long as Washington is not behind getting the problem fixed, it will not be fixed," said rancher Tweeti Blancett.

The San Juan Basin covers 7,800 square miles in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. It produced $2.4 billion in oil and gas income last year, bringing in $325 million in federal royalties. The basin produces 10% of U.S. natural gas.

Tod Bryant, a spokesman for the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in Oklahoma City, said Thursday that the oil and gas sites are properly permitted and "anybody who tries to deny access to that has got to be breaking the law."

"Oil and gas companies are playing by the rules, and these people should too," he said.

Blancett said the lockout won't keep drillers off their wells, since there are alternate routes to the sites. "They just can't come through and destroy our private land in the process," she said.

However, Velasquez said the gate that he locked provided the only access to about 25 gas wells.

Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Assn., said Blancett and her fellow protesters are a vocal minority who refuse to meet with oil and gas producers to iron out solutions. "The law is very clear and it has been upheld that the mineral rights take precedence over surface rights," he said.

Linn Blancett, Tweeti Blancett's husband, said he locked an access gate to his ranchland north of Aztec "so that I can control the damage being done on my property, but also to the rest of the surface on the BLM grazing permit that I hold." The Blancetts are sixth-generation New Mexico ranchers.

Velasquez had a confrontation a few years ago with drillers who had left a cattle gate open. "I'd had enough," Velasquez said after that incident. "So I parked my pickup and my horse trailer across the road and wouldn't let them [drillers] out. They called the state cops."

That incident ended amicably, and Tweeti Blancett said ranchers have no intention of letting their protest get out of control. "We do not intend to break the peace. We have been here since the 1870s, and we're not going anywhere," she said.

Drilling has increased dramatically in the basin as demand for natural gas has grown. More than 10,000 head of cattle frequently encounter subcontractors and service crews in a basin with about 20,000 wells.

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