OTERO MESA, N.M. — The governor of New Mexico -- leading an unusual alliance of ranchers, environmentalists, hunters and property-rights activists -- has launched an election-year challenge to the Bush administration's energy policies, vowing to block a plan to drill for gas on a vast expanse of desert grasslands here.
Gov. Bill Richardson's opposition represents the strongest signal to date that the Rocky Mountain West, long dependent on energy production, is having second thoughts about the administration's aggressive advocacy of oil and gas drilling.
"The federal government just got notice that, if they want to drill in Otero Mesa, this governor and this state are going to fight them," Richardson said at a rally in Albuquerque last week.
Richardson, who was secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, remains a player on the national political stage. He has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee, and will be chairman of this summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Richardson's decision to champion the protection of Otero Mesa is a sign that the Bush energy policy could emerge as a campaign issue in the Mountain West as Democrats rail against Republican special interests.
The companies that stand to benefit most from drilling at Otero Mesa have close ties to members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and top officials of the Department of the Interior. That has led opponents to argue that cronyism, rather than sound energy policy, is behind the Otero Mesa drilling plan.
The contested area, encompassing 1.2 million acres in southern Otero County, west of Carlsbad and northeast of El Paso, is a vast plain, punctuated with rugged rock formations, that has long been a magnet for hunters and naturalists. It is home to herds of pronghorn, migratory songbirds and endangered Aplomado falcons.
"I think people see this as a remnant of the old New Mexico they love -- a wildness and an openness," said Greta Miller, a member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. "People here love it and want it stay like it is."
Ranchers own some of the land in the area, as does the state. But the federal government is by far the largest landowner; the Interior Department controls the area of greatest interest to oil and gas companies.
"This administration's approach to energy is to drill, drill, drill," Richardson said during a recent interview. "They pander to their core base: the energy and oil industry. We are an oil and gas state. But Otero Mesa deserves to be protected, and I intend to make that clear to the administration."
The governor described Otero Mesa's rare Chihuahuan Desert grasslands as "the West's ANWR" -- a reference to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the focus of heated disputes between oil interests and environmentalists.
Last week, Richardson signed an executive order making it state policy to protect Otero Mesa. The governor's authority over the area is limited. But he said he would seek to prevent new energy leases on state land, strengthen rules regarding the disposal of mine waste, and take steps to limit the issuing of crucial water permits to drillers.
New Mexico is the nation's second-largest producer of natural gas from onshore wells and the fifth-largest producer of oil. Taxes and royalties from the energy industry are by far the largest component of the state's $12-billion permanent fund, which is used primarily to finance education.
Richardson said that he supported energy exploration elsewhere in the state but that federal land managers needed to be more discriminating in where they allowed wells. The Bush administration has countered that the drilling is necessary to meet growing national demand.
"In the last decade, there have been a number of natural-gas-fired power plants that have been put into development," said Eric Ruff, an Interior Department spokesman. "If those plants are going to continue to operate, the gas has to come from somewhere. If it doesn't come from responsible development on America's public lands, it's going to come from foreign sources. And Americans will pay more for that."
Critics argue that the administration is unnecessarily targeting some of the last wild land in the West. Last year, the Interior Department angered conservationists by doing away with the process by which federal wilderness protection could be expanded to new areas, and by opening up many of those areas in Colorado, Montana and Utah to oil and gas drilling.
Moreover, concerns over the loss of wildlife habitat as well as contamination of forage and groundwater, have worried hunting and fishing groups and caused some ranchers, long accustomed to sharing grazing lands with oil wells, to lock their gates to energy company crews.