Environmentalists and some residents in northwest New Mexico are denouncing a move by one of the state’s largest natural gas producers that would allow for more extraction in what they describe as an already densely drilled region.
Texas-based Hilcorp Energy Co., a privately held outfit that in 2017 purchased oil behemoth ConocoPhillips’ assets in the San Juan Basin, is petitioning to change the drilling rules governing the Blanco-Mesaverde gas pool, a region spanning vast swaths of mostly federal land in San Juan and Rio Arriba counties.
If approved, the petition would allow companies to double the number of wells in operation, either by boring new wells or accessing the gas pool in existing ones.
Under current rules, four wells can be drilled within each 320-acre tract of the Blanco-Mesaverde. The change would increase that number to eight.
The issue is set to come before the three-member Oil Conservation Commission in Santa Fe on Thursday.
Hilcorp representatives say the move would spur economic development in the region, further bolstering New Mexico’s oil and gas industry. But opponents claim doubling well density would have vast environmental implications for the area.
“They’re going to take this multiuse land that we have, and they’re going to tip it into an industrial zone,” said Don Schreiber, an environmental activist who operates a 2,000-acre cattle ranch east of Farmington.
Schreiber, who is featured in a political ad funded by CVNM Verde Voters Fund that is critical of Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce, said he fears additional wells will worsen health conditions for residents, destroy an already brittle high-desert landscape, decimate wildlife populations and further fuel a rural exodus he said has been playing out for decades.
As he passes any of the 122 wells dotting his federally permitted grazing land, Schreiber said he can smell gas seeping into the air. The Four Corners region has been classified a methane hot spot — a cloud of methane gas the size of Delaware hangs over the land — and NASA scientists have linked much of the greenhouse gas emissions to natural gas wells, storage tanks and pipelines in the region.
Schreiber criticized Hilcorp for lack of transparency. Legal notices in the Farmington Daily Times and the Rio Grande Sun on the Friday before Labor Day alerted stakeholders to the proposed move, and opponents were left scrambling to organize and formally object to the move within a seven-day deadline, he said.
The issue, Schreiber said, deserves a more intense public-input process and environmental impact statements.
Activists with the nonprofit group Conservation Voters New Mexico on Monday petitioned New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to intervene. David Carl, a spokesman for Balderas, said the office is “monitoring the issue” and will ensure transparency in government agencies.
This is the second time since May that activists have petitioned the attorney general to take action on a Hilcorp request. In May, the company withdrew a request to bypass the public hearing process on individual requests for exceptions to the well-density rule.
In an emailed statement, an official for Hilcorp, which operates more than 5,000 wells in the Blanco-Mesaverde and thousands more in the rest of the San Juan Basin, described the petition as an effort to streamline rules that make it difficult to reuse an existing well without first drilling a new one.
The company has submitted and been granted in public hearings nearly 70 exceptions to the gas-pool rule within the past year, a fact that “demonstrates the need to update the existing rule,” spokesman Justin Furnace said in the statement.
“Hilcorp’s proposed amendment to the current pool rule promotes new investment into northwest New Mexico communities and extends the life of the San Juan Basin,” he said.
Furnace noted any application for a new well bore still would have to funnel through state, local and federal regulatory bodies and meet environmental, cultural, archaeological and other requirements.
But Schreiber said the end result of the new rule still is likely to be more drilling — and whether new wells are drilled or old ones reused, the environment will suffer.
“Whether you’ve entered the same well bore or no, … when you bring it to the surface, all hell breaks loose,” he said.