Drilling in Mexico’s Otero Mesa could contaminate underground water

May 14, 2005 02:00 AM

In New Mexico, pure underground water always trumps the dangers of exploring for oil and gas. An arid state, stricken by regular but unpredictable droughts, New Mexico has often found itself indifferent to the contamination of precious aquifers in the name of economic development.
The tragedy, of course, is that once groundwater is polluted in a certain area, it is very difficult and extremely costly to clean. If the contamination reaches an aquifer, it is unlikely it will ever be potable again. It is an uncertain science at best that determines how pollution moves through underground water.

That's part of the reason Gov. Bill Richardson and Attorney General Patricia Madrid are suing the federal Bureau of Land Management over its plan to allow exploratory oil and gas drilling on relatively pristine Otero Mesa, south of Alamogordo.
Oilmen in southern New Mexico refer to Otero Mesa as the next Permian Basin, referring to the massive multibillion-dollar deposits of oil and natural gas already extracted from west Texas and south-eastern New Mexico.

The Otero Mesa controversy is not about the 141 exploratory wells and 84 producing wells supported by the BLM. It's about opening up a massive oil strike, as big as the fantastic landscape-scarring oil boom around Midland, Texas, and environs.
If the struggle to preserve Otero Mesa as a virgin grassland, one of the largest left in the known world, was up against the devil greed of oil, it wouldn't stand a chance. But Otero Mesa also sits atop an aquifer that is at least immense enough, we're told, to supply drinking water to half the people in this state for a good while, by reckonings last year.

And now, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque estimates that the aquifer might have as much as 15 mm acre-feet of drinkable water. To put that number in perspective, Albuquerque is importing 48,000 acre-feet a year through the San Juan Chama project to slow the drawn down on its aquifer. If Albuquerque alone could tap it, Otero's Salt Basin aquifer, as it's called, would supply more than three centuries' worth of the current San Juan Chama project flow.
So why would such a small number of oil wells as the BLM proposes endanger that aquifer? The BLM says those wells would compromise only one-tenth of 1 % of the whole Otero Mesa.

That's the chicanery of numbers at work. The drilling would compromise a tiny area, but that area could be spread over 95 % of the mesa, or so New Mexico contends in its lawsuit.
Any leakage into the aquifer from that vast area could render a contaminated aquifer, useless for human consumption and perhaps for the better part of forever. It's a gold mine in water against a gold mine in oil -- life for many or profits for a few.

Source: Tribune
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