A Quirk in the Law
The quest for coal-bed methane consumes both a New Mexican landscape and the way of life that depends on it
by William DeBuys
WELCOME TO AZTEC
6378 FRIENDLY PEOPLE &
6 OLD SOREHEADS
THE SIGN AT THE EDGE of town makes you wonder what a sorehead up in the dry, windblown heart of New Mexico’s San Juan basin might be sore about. Other signs that compete for attention along the same mile of highway provide a possible hint: WILLIAMS EXPLORATION AND PRODUCTION, DESERT POWER, SIERRA CHEMICALS, XTO ENERGY, UNDERGROUND SPECIALISTS, and on they go. A drilling derrick four stories tall looms above the sprawl of pipe and machinery at Aztec Well Servicing. These businesses, being so numerous, must belong to the friendlies.
If anybody in Aztec qualifies as a sorehead, Tweeti Blancett and her husband Linn would have to top the list. At first impulse, you might not take someone named Tweeti seriously, but that would be a mistake. Tweeti, whose blond hair spills from beneath her cowboy hat, ran George W. Bush’s campaign in San Juan County in 2000, and she has similarly headed various of Republican Senator Pete Domenici’s re-election efforts. Tweeti herself has served in New Mexico’s House of Representatives. She is affable, energetic, capable, and extremely persistent. And because of what coal bed methane has done to her land, she is a certifiable sorehead.
Her duties last Memorial Day helped remind her what she is sore about. She took three “huge” tubs of flowers to the Aztec cemetery, and “it nearly wasn’t enough.” The cemetery lies at the end of a little ridge that used to be lonely, but nowadays so-called ranch houses crowd the hills around it. Downslope to the west run the Animas River and the ever-droning highway to Durango. Off to the north, jagged peaks in Colorado etch a blue horizon. Tweeti and Linn have buried two sons in the cemetery, lost to accident and illness, and there are lots of other Blancetts to keep them company: Myrtle, M. Linn and Violet, Robert Linn, Matilda, Edward, Marcellus, Golda, George L., and Caddie, to name a few. Inside the gate under an old cedar lie Moses and Lucinda, born in 1833 and 1834, respectively. There are also kin from the four families who came with the Blancetts to the San Juan country in the 1870s, even before it was legal for whites to settle, and into whose lines the Blancetts married. Altogether, Tweeti distributed her flowers among six generations of relatives.
The Blancetts are quintessentially the kind of people Wallace Stegner called “stickers,” a class he distinguished from the itinerant waves of “boomers and busters” who swarmed after the West’s mining strikes, land and timber rushes, reclamation projects, military contracts, and construction booms. The stickers sought to find their homes first, fortunes second. They were out to make a living, not a killing. If the West were ever to develop “a society to match the scenery,” Stegner said, the stickers would have to prevail. Without them, the West risked becoming a soulless, ransacked nowhere.
The first wave of the San Juan basin oil and gas boom came in the 1950s, and Linn Blancett’s parents welcomed it. The oil and gas boys put money in the ranchers’ pockets, and they opened roads into the backcountry that increased access to water and eased the hard work of tending and gathering cattle. The exploration drillers of that era sought petroleum and “sweet” gas, which is high-quality natural gas found in large reservoirs. The wells were widely scattered. The crews and pipelines were few. People like the Blancetts adapted and got along.
Coal bed methane (CBM), which became a regional obsession in the late 1990s, changed everything. Every coal formation harbors a quantity of methane, the primary component of natural gas, but because the coal is dense and the seams and cavities in which the gas collects are small, each well taps a relatively small volume of the formation.
It takes a lot of wells to pull the gas from a coal bed efficiently. In the canyons north and west of Aztec the wells go in on a grid so tight you can’t stand at one and not see another—even in broken country. It is the kind of density that in New York City would put about fifteen wells in Central Park, none much more than a quarter mile from its neighbors. And each well has to have a road and a pipeline, plus a compressor, probably a sump for the foul liquids that the drilling generates, plus maybe a pump jack, a dehydrator to separate gas from water, and a tank for still more foul liquids that come from the dehydrator once the well is producing.
Before long, the sagebrush flats and junipered mesas of the San Juan basin groaned day and night with the rumbleroar of innumerable engines. The same region that bred the stoicism of the old-time Navajos and Utes had become a vast factory spread over hundreds of square miles, an industrialized wildland, no longer wild, producing hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of pipeline gas. Amid the seeming prosperity, however, the hemophilic soil eroded from bulldozed drill pads and road cuts, antifreeze dripped and lubricating oil pooled, and the chemicals and effluents of the drilling trade stained the earth.
Most of the bad stuff, most of the time, was trucked off, but not all of it, not always. So when the rain finally fell the way a rancher had to pray it would, the contaminants drained with the good water into puddles where the cattle drank, and a rancher like Linn Blancett or his neighbor Chris Velasquez might check on his livestock and find that some had aborted or gotten sick or lost their hair or, in some cases, just dropped dead. And meanwhile the mule deer, elk, jack rabbits, coyotes, and other critters were drinking the same toxic brews.
“The good part,” says Tweeti, “is that the other places with oil and gas that the energy companies are just now breaking into can at least see what’s going to happen to them. The bad part is that the ranch is gone. We can’t run anything up there anymore. All you would do is turn them out and they would die.” For the better part of 40 years, the Blancetts ran 250 head of mother cows on 32,000 acres, 95 percent of which was public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. For the last few they fought with the agency and the energy companies spill by spill and permit by permit, seeking enforcement of existing regulations as well as new protections. Although they won a share of battles, they lost the war. When wells on their allotment outnumbered cattle by almost three to one, with more being drilled every month, they sold the cattle. But they haven’t sold their grazing permits: they are still fighting.
Chris Velasquez has made a similar retreat. Like Linn Blancett, he comes from a long line of stickers, counting back five generations to his ancestors’ first toehold on the Río de San Juan a few dozen miles upstream of its confluence with the Animas. Fifteen years ago Chris and his wife, Kay, hocked everything they owned to buy permits to graze two hundred head for six months of the year on the thirty-thousand-acre Rosa allotment. Once there, they set aside a third of the allotment for wildlife and grazed the rest. That act of altruism, plus the cooperation he showed toward the BLM and its energy company clients, won Chris a statewide award for excellence in range management in 1995. His contacts at the BLM had nominated him for the honor, but the mutual affection didn’t last. By 2000, CBM development had reached a frenzy on the Rosa, and the innumerable meetings he attended “to work things out” failed either to reverse the decline in his calves’ weaning weights or to prevent a fair number from being poisoned. Six years later, after constant argument and confrontation, the five hundredth well went in on the Rosa, and Chris sold his permits. In a moment of rare candor, a BLM manager told him, “I feel sorry for you, but you are in a sacrifice zone.”
That kind of language hearkens to the 1970s, when government officials spoke openly about the necessity of accepting “national sacrifice areas” so that the United States might secure its energy independence. The strip mines of the Four Corners region and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, the continued despoliation of Appalachia, and the disgorgement of oil shale from Colorado’s Western Slope, it was said, would be the lamentable but necessary price of national security. Since then, many strip mines have been torn open; beleaguered Appalachia, thanks to the relatively recent innovation of “mountaintop removal mining,” is more cursed than ever; and oil shale development is again attracting investment. But sacrifices notwithstanding, the nation’s dependence on foreign oil has doubled since 1982 (to 56 percent of total consumption), and in the same period U.S. dependence on foreign gas has tripled to almost 15 percent. And no one speaks publicly about sacrifice.
ON COUNTY ROAD 2770 in Hart Canyon where the Blancetts used to run their cattle, the Bureau of Land Management has erected the area’s most ironic welcoming sign. It says
YOUR PUBLIC LANDS
MANAGED BY THE FARMINGTON FIELD OFFICE
My public lands? You talkin’ to me?
A visitor to Hart Canyon has to wonder whose land Hart Canyon really is. The Blancetts used to think it was theirs. They used it, tended it, knew it. It was their partner, not for a few months or a year, but lifelong, or so they thought. Yet they recognized that others also had a right to it: hunters mainly, and the sweet gas people. Nobody else was much interested. Hart Canyon is neither particularly scenic nor especially productive in a biological sense. It is homely, unspectacular land, like most of the West, like most of the world, the kind of land a cynical outsider might say “mainly keeps hell from shining through.” But if you, or anyone, depend on land and struggle with it and worry about it and study it through all weathers and whole stages of your life, and if you have a heart that beats, that land is land you come to love. More than that, or maybe it is the same thing, the land gets into your bones and becomes part of you.
And so for the Blancetts when the land turned poisonous and hostile, as though a golem had materialized from its subterranean gases and waged a war against them, “It was,” says Tweeti, “other than losing our boys, the most devastating thing we have had to accept.”
Law and custom have teased land ownership in the West into as many parts as the land can offer. One person or entity might own the “fee,” which is the surface of the land; another might hold the grazing rights, and others the rights to the water or the timber. Still others might separately own the surface minerals (sand and gravel) or the subsurface (everything else). In theory everything gets an owner, and in practice a single owner rarely gets everything. A corollary quirk in the law, born of the nineteenth-century notion that the West’s best hope for economic prosperity lay with mining, holds that mineral rights generally trump all other rights, including ownership of the fee. This means that if the minerals under the pretty little ranch you just plowed your life savings into belong to somebody else, you might one day see the land you thought was “yours” erupt with the drill rigs and heavy equipment of the coal bed methane industry. It’s the old story of “if one guy gets the mine, somebody else gets the shaft.”
The ultimate dissection of the land into its constituent uses implies, oddly enough, that the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It is a kind of reductivism on steroids. The intent is to increase the velocity of economic growth by maximizing the number of things that can be bought and sold, and it is a strategy that has always favored boomers over stickers.
The federal government has tried to ameliorate the fragmentation of interests on public lands by pursuing an official policy of “multiple use.” At times the strategy has worked, but only when guided by an ethic of restraint and supervised by honest referees. The plain fact, clear to all but selectively denied according to self-interest, is that coarse uses, if unchecked, drive out the fine. Backcountry skiing dies where snowmobilers swarm like hornets. Hiking and fishing become joyless in a cow-burnt meadow, and nothing gets along with cut-and-run logging.
Money, invariably, trumps restraint because it buys the rules and referees that its possessors need, and in coal bed methane development, where a million-dollar well can pay for itself in a matter of weeks and then exhale profit ever after, there is no shortage of money. Which means coal bed methane is as compatible with multiple use as a clearcut or a crown fire.
In Hart Canyon the dust from trucks hardly ever settles. Tankers haul foul water to reinjection wells that pump the waste back into the ground. Semis pull flatbeds bearing bulldozers, backhoes, trenchers, derricks, engines, well casing, compressors, everything the vast horizontal factory needs. And fleets of tool-laden white pickups, each flying a jaunty red pennant (for visibility), scurry up and down the roads like tenders in a busy harbor. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, the interests that command those vehicles own Hart Canyon, the Rosa allotment, and nearly all the land between and around them, notwithstanding the sign that says your public lands. Those same interests will continue to own the land until they go away, which one day, in the obligate manner of all boomers, they must. At that point, the fate of the land becomes an interesting question. Tweeti remembers how Linn put it when he told her their long fight was useless: “He said, ‘Tweeti, there is no way we can reclaim this land in our lifetime. If that’s all we did, and there was no more drilling, there was no more traffic, no more wells, no more pipelines, we can’t repair it within our lifetime.’”
But CBM won’t be leaving soon. In 2003, the BLM adopted a management plan for its Farmington, New Mexico, resource area that predicted approval over the next ten years of an additional 9,942 gas wells on federal lands across a major swath of the San Juan basin, encompassing Hart Canyon, the Rosa, and much else, where 18,000 oil and gas wells were already active.
Everybody knows that we Americans guzzle the world’s largest shares of gas and oil. Everybody knows that each additional ruined canyon will have a negligible effect on the nation’s voracious appetites. Everybody knows that you can still floor it when your gas tank is a half-pint short of empty.
JACK O’NEAL, sunburned, gruff, and squinting under a white hard hat, has worked in the drilling fields for almost thirty years. He’s been cavitating CBM wells for the last five. That means he and his crew set a drill rig over a well where production has begun to taper off—it only takes them half a day—and then they reopen the well and pump various liquids into it under tremendous pressure. The idea is to pulverize the coal at the bottom of the well and create a cavity where gas will more easily collect. It is a little like shaking a bottle of soda pop, except that when the shaker’s thumb comes off the bottle mouth, the release of pressure roars like a jet engine for up to fifteen minutes. O’Neal repeats the process three or four times and then pulls his rig away to cavitate another well. What he and his crew do is difficult and sometimes dangerous. But they are good at it. They work hard and efficiently, and the companies that employ them make money. But years from now they’ll be making their money somewhere else, which is one of the things that galls Chris Velasquez.
“If they make this much mess on the surface, what do you think it is like down below?” he asks. “What do you think is happening to the water my kids and grandkids are going to be drinking?” In October 2005 Chris and Tweeti watched as a long-boomed excavator systematically tore the lining from a collection pit and then used its bucket to mix the toxic waters with the underlying soils. They called their contacts at BLM, who came at once, expressed regret, and explained that they were powerless to act since the sump, which ostensibly existed in order to prevent mixing of its contents with the soil, was on private land. They said this in spite of the fact that at least a portion of the underlying minerals being developed at the site belonged to the federal government. The site lay less than two hundred yards from the Animas River.
Chris Velasquez knows what it is to be displaced. The small farm at the confluence of the Río de los Pinos and the Río de San Juan, where he grew up, now lies beneath waters impounded by Navajo Dam, which the Bureau of Reclamation built in the 1960s. “They drowned me out once, and maybe now they’ll kill me with chemicals, but I am not going anywhere.” Asked how it felt to lose his grasp on the land and have it turn against him, he says, “It was painless at first, and then by the time it began to hurt, we’d already had the full injection.”
His metaphor is apt. Even the president has acknowledged the nation’s addiction to foreign oil. George W. Bush would have made a stronger, truer point if he had said we were addicted to fossil fuels in general. What no one, least of all the president, talks about is how our lives compare to those of addicts. Most people think of junkies as perpetrators of crime, forgetting that they are also violent crime’s most frequent victims. Their needs make them vulnerable. Down on the street, it is no big thing to roll a junkie. Up on the mesas and in the canyons of the West and in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, something similar is happening, and the victims are not just the Blancetts, the Velasquezes, or the mountaineers of West Virginia. As a nation and as a people, we are being shaken down all the way to the bottom. And we are taking much of the rest of the world with us.
Says Tweeti, who now travels far and wide in the United States and Canada to talk about CBM and energy development, “The thing that bothers me—and I don’t know that it bothers Linn as much as the loss of who and what he was—but what bothers me is, people don’t stand up and say anything. They just seem to take it.”