New oil boom coming to San Juan Basin

A crew works on a natural gas drilling platform near Farmington in April 2012. A new study found that San Juan County is among the oil- and gas-producing counties in New Mexico and Colorado with a disproportionate rate of COVID-19 deaths.

Northwestern New Mexico is prepping for a new oil and gas boom in a region that’s pumped out natural gas for decades and where those resources were once thought fully developed.

The boom could be similar to what’s happening in southeastern New Mexico’s Permian Basin, and the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana, according to oil and gas experts.

Improved horizontal drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing provide drillers an economical way to reach oil and gas reserves in tight shale formations in the San Juan Basin, said Dave Evans, district manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office.

The office is preparing for the boom by analyzing potential drawbacks to air quality, water resources, riparian areas and wildlife habitat from potentially hundreds of new wells. The agency is asking for public comments about the concerns during a scoping period that ends April 28. The agency will use the comments to prepare an environmental impact statement, as required by federal law, and to amend the district’s 2002 resource management plan.

“The plan amendment will address increased exploration, mostly in the Mancos Shale/Gallup formation on BLM land in the Farmington Field Office and on split estate lands,” Evans said. “We also provide guidance to the Forest Service, Jicarilla Apache and Navajo tribe.”

The office oversees 1.3 million acres of minerals on BLM land and another 3.6 million acres of split estate, where the surface land is owned by another entity or private party. About 90 percent of the BLM land is already leased for mineral development.

An estimated 30 billion barrels of oil are in the shale, though not all of it will be recoverable, according to industry information published during a San Juan Basin energy conference last year.

Canada’s Encana Corp. and Tulsa, Okla.-based WPX Energy both are developing oil wells in the San Juan Basin and planning to invest millions to drill more this year. Encana has leased 160,000 acres of mineral rights in the San Juan Basin. WPX Energy announced plans to put $160 million in developing oil plays in 2014 on its 60,000 leased acres in the San Juan Basin.

Evans said new drilling could mean an extensive increase in roads and pipelines. The scoping period and follow-up public meetings give the public a chance to “see what this could look like and tell us about potential issues.”

The Mancos/Gallup shale formation starts at about 7,000 feet underground, Evans said. He said drinkable groundwater supplies end at about 2,500 feet below ground. “The shale formation is well below any usable waters,” he said.

But increased well drilling around the United States in the last five years has heightened public concerns over the impact on water, air and human health from fracking. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique in which water and other chemicals are forced through a well bore hole to open up rock and release the trapped hydrocarbons.

Evans said he is confident any new drilling won’t harm groundwater resources.

“We’ve been stimulating wells for more than 50 years in this area,” he said. “We have not had any groundwater contamination. We have a good history with this.”

The impact of potentially thousands of new wells on groundwater isn’t the only concern, according to Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance. Eisenfeld said in the new hunt for oil, some companies are flaring off the natural gas that first comes up the pipe. He said that hurts air quality and wastes a natural resource.

Eisenfeld said there’s also potential impact on cultural resources such as Chaco Canyon, which is in an area companies want to drill.

Eisenfeld said back in 2003, when the last resource management plan was finished, it didn’t take into account the shale oil because no one thought it could be tapped economically. But they’ve known for five years now that the new technology made the oil lucrative. He said the BLM should have started planning for the impacts sooner.

Eisenfeld said the group doesn’t oppose oil and gas drilling in the region, “But if they really want to partner with communities up here, they need to be smarter about how they plan for full field development.”

New oil shale drilling could restore the San Juan Basin’s fortunes. The region has seen a dramatic downturn in the last couple of years due to suppressed natural gas prices, Evans said.

One way to measure the downturn is in the number of drilling permits issued by the agency. At its peak, the agency was issuing 800 to 900 permits a year, Evans said. About 40 drilling rigs were running in the region.

Currently, only seven rigs are drilling, and last year the Farmington Field Office issued only 110 permits. “We plugged nearly four times the wells as were drilled,” Evans said.

He believes as coal-fired power plants switch to natural gas and an oversupply of the resource is used up, drilling will increase in the San Juan Basin.

Evans said the scoping meetings are the first in a long process, with a final decision on amending the resource management plan not expected until late 2016.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

(22) comments

Beverly Harris

Oh, well gee. I was all concerned about fracking issues, what with European countries outlawing it and so many US communities outraged and attempting to ban it and the horror stories and so on. But then I read this article and learned that some guy at the Farmington BLM office thinks it's no problem at all. What a relief.

(I do hope that readers can detect the abundant amount of sarcasm dripping from my computer keyboard).

Joseph Hempfling

I can't believe this RUSH TO DRILL is still even being considered in light of all the recent headlines re; water contamination, related health hazards, ruining of our infrastructure, the fact that it is outright BANNED in most of Europe and yet it still hangs on trying to get us to believe it is safe profitable and in our country's best interests.
But then again as Gobbels is reported to have once said; any lie if repeated often enough becomes believable. Sorry but NOT THIS TIME. The era of fossil fuel is over so lets move on before it is too late.

Mark C Johnson

Having been born and raised in Eddy County and spent most of my adult life in Sana Fe county, I am amazed at how dismissive the intellectuals of our state capitol are of the amazingly hard work of the roughnecks of southeastern New Mexico.

Pat Shackleford

Would you please quote, or point to, an example of the "dismissive" content directed at "the amazingly hard work of the roughnecks of southeastern New Mexico." I haven't noticed that particular slant or angle here.

Pat Shackleford

I suppose the Upton Sinclair quote, in a comment below, could be interpreted as you suggest. Otherwise, I don't think anyone is faulting or demeaning the workers, while arguing the merits and detriments of various production methods and their prevalence.

Thomas Carlson

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair

Emily Koyama

Isn't that kinda how welfare abuse works?

Michael Grimler

40% of New Mexico's income and annual budget comes from the sale of oil and gas.

If all of that was to go away, how would we fund NM's expenditures?

Cathy McManus

Yes, traditionally a large chunk of revenue comes from oil and gas but this is shortsighted. This state could invest in renewable energy thru wind and solar and sell excess energy to other states. Our air and water and wildlife habitats would improve and make this state a real tourist destination for those who want a pristine outdoor environment. I have witnessed the large pipe lines going in across the state and we will experience an environmental disaster that will permanently damage this state. Look at WIPP in Carlsbad which we still do not know how leaked radiation will affect the thousands down there.

Philip Taccetta

I can't believe that I find myself sidling with Pat. Dick Cheney is evil incarnate.
Henry Bowman on the other hand has certainly been watching too much Faux News!
Many climate scientists now agree that we have indeed hit the "tipping point" - climate change is no longer reversible. Some parts of the earth will become permanently uninhabitable due to climate change. We've missed our opportunity to slow/stop climate change due to the deep pockets of the extractive industries - and their ability to influence thinking, with climate change deniers all over the conservative media convincing people to ignore the facts.

Stephen Clarke

What I find most lamentable in all this is the accelerated genocide of indigenous Navajo lifeways and ceremonial traditions. It’s down the Memory Hole for anything else other than the news of the rule of plunder. The ethos of Mordor has become normalized in the land within which our Spirits of Place reside.

Go to any lonely place of significance in the area to make offerings and reconnect with the deep history and Mythos of the Land and its ancestral pathways and you will note that the pulsing heartbeat of the Earth is increasingly difficult to access past the relentless mechanical drone of the wellpumps. The Holy People still walk about, but the cognitive dissonance of apprehending them while the machine world clanks way is difficult to sustain and not for the faint of heart. Many no longer try, but sustaining those links is important, in ways most of us no longer suspect.
Aggressive ignorance about such matters, played out across the continent, is the bedrock of the American Dream. Repressed awareness about the source and costs of USA wealth and power (we are all guilty as hell; the “1%” of the worlds population!) serves devious agendas and percolates through the mass culture in a pervasive sense of unease and compulsive overcompensation, from reactive social politics to the militarization of foreign policy and the psychological devastation of sensitive youth.

The life forces of the earth are receding to more hidden places. Follow them, if you can. They will return.

Joseph Hempfling

TALK ABOUT AUDACITY AND DELIBERATELY DISCOUNTING "EXTERNAL COSTS" IN THE TRUMPETED UP EXCUSE OF SO CALLED "NATIONAL SECURITY" IE. LETS NOW BLAME IT ON PUTIN, AND OF COURSE NOT EVEN MENTION CLIMATE CHANGE; AND PROCEED WITH THE NEO-CON PLAN OF DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY IE. DOCUMENTED WATER CONTAMINATION, EARTH QUAKES, METHANE RELEASE, RELATED HEALTH PROBLEMS, CONTINUED INFRASTRUCTURE EROSION ETC. ETC.. AND ALL IN THE NAME OF ALREADY RUN-A-WAY CORPORATE PROFITS. WHAT INSANITY AS AMERICA CONTINUES TO BE HARVESTED AND SOLD OFF TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER RESOURCES AFTER RESOURCES ! WAKE UP AMERICA !

Thomas Carlson

I think it's safe to say that if there is short-term profit to be made from exploiting every last bit of carbon-based energy... it will be made. Meanwhile, global warming is barreling down on us like a freight train.

Henry Bowman

Unfortunately, that "global warming" has slowed down -- there hasn't been any such warming for ~17 years. This is not good for humanity, as global warming has a net positive benefit on mankind.

Carbon dioxide contributes to global warming, but only a relatively small amount, about 20% (and its effect decreases over time as carbon dioxide increases). We could all use a warmer planet, for a host of reasons.

The drilling described will improve the lot of Americans (and New Mexicans in particular), but have little effect on global warming. Such effects, though small, are positive, not negative.

Thomas Carlson

Sorry, Henry, I'm going with 97% of climate scientists on this one. They say that global warming is happening and we're the cause of it. When you consider rising ocean temperatures and diminishing polar ice-caps, plus the methane feedback-loops that are kicking in... it's going to be real dicey for industrial civilization by mid-century. Maybe fossil-fuel investors can ride it all out in their wealth bubbles, though.

Henry Bowman

I didn't say it wasn't happening...only that is for the better.

Pat Shackleford

“We’ve been stimulating wells for more than 50 years in this area,” he said. “We have not had any groundwater contamination.

That's a barrel of standard industry bs, for sure. How does one acquire proof of no groundwater contamination? Has he been monitoring all the private water wells in areas he's drilled for the last 40 years? What he probably means is; no one has yet proven that we've polluted their water, and/or, local residents aren't yet aware that their water is polluted, and if they are, they can't prove who did it. Thanks, Dick.

Pat Shackleford

The "thanks" being to Dick Cheney, who as a friend of the industry (while otherwise operating as Satan's ambassador on Earth, a menace to society worldwide) was instrumental in implementing federal regulations allowing gas "frackers" to NOT disclose the chemicals/substances they inject into their wells. Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 which created exemptions for hydraulic fracturing to benefit Halliburton and other oil and gas companies.

One key benefit of the legislation to producer-polluters, being that without disclosing the chemical composition of their injected substances, those chemicals, when later found in a water well can not (legally) be connected to the driller, thus leaving them unaccountable for damages, or cleanup.
Thanks, Dick!

Mel Hayes

I think Henry Bowman has been watching too much Fox TV.

Emily Koyama

Yeah, MSLSD is soooo much more objective.

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