The plane had wheeled back north toward the airport when the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center came into view, perched on the tan heaps of a sloping escarpment that offers no clue to the dramatically sculpted caverns beneath. From the air, however, signs of another underground natural resource were plainly visible: well pads pock the horizon. The park overlooks a stretch of desert atop the Permian Basin, and I’m in a tiny, six-seat plane—including the pilot’s—to get a look at how the push for one resource could affect the other. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has proposed to auction mineral leases on 197 parcels in the area in September. Some of those 89,000 acres sit within a mile of the national park boundary, or encroach on Guadalupe Mountains National Park across the Texas state line.
Take a look at most oil and gas infrastructure — wellheads, pipes and cylindrical storage tanks — dotting New Mexico oil and gas fields, and little seems to be happening. But use the right equipment and you can see gases, including methane, wafting into the air. Heading skyward with methane, the main component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, are royalties some say the oil and gas industry could be paying New Mexico. An April report from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national budget and taxpayer advocate, analyzed federal leases through the Office of Natural Resource Revenue and estimated that the gas lost nationwide on federal lands in 2016 was worth $75.5 million. Half of the gas lost between 2012 and 2016 came from New Mexico.
On a windy Monday morning in May, residents packed the Counselor Chapter House. Some sat in plastic folding chairs, while others leaned against the wall, all paying attention to the speakers. Coming to the front of the chapter house, Marie Chavez Herbert introduced herself in the Navajo language. “I’m going to talk real fast OK,” she said as she took the microphone to talk about fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in her community near Chaco Canyon. Four members of the Navajo Nation Council, Speaker LoRenzo Bates, Councilor Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Councilor Davis Filfred and Councilor Leonard Tsosie who represents Counselor as well as nearby chapters, had come to hear testimony from area residents. The listening session, which lasted about five hours, provided a glimpse into tensions in several small Navajo communities near Chaco Canyon over an uptick in fracking in recent years, pitting those who worry about the public health hazards it poses against government agencies who authorize it, as well as some of their neighbors who benefit economically from leasing their land to oil and gas companies.
This week the state agency in charge of building a diversion on the Gila River has scaled down plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.
In the Southwest, recent springtime stream flow forecasts have been pretty bleak. But now, scientists at the University of New Mexico are saying that actually, they’re probably not bleak enough. Forecasters might not have adjusted enough for a moving target that is increasingly a factor—the climate’s continual warming.
Last year, New Mexico state lawmakers set aside $100,000 to study the state’s water supply. But now, the funding is gone. Citing a drop in state revenue, the Legislature has pulled funding for the group—known as the New Mexico Universities Working Group on Water Supply Vulnerabilities.
For University of New Mexico graduate student Shaleene Chavarria, understanding stream flows and climate change is personal. She’s from the Pueblo of Santa Clara which, like many of New Mexico’s tribes, relies on stream flows for irrigation as well as for ceremonies that are tied to the planting and harvest seasons.