Prior to the Bush administration taking office 2001, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) prepared and issued in November 2000, a draft land use management plan that called for opening up nearly 779,000 acres of Otero Mesa to oil and gas leasing and drilling. The plan had in place stringent restrictions on development in the fragile desert grasslands (RMPA/EIS for Sierra and Otero Counties). Representatives of the oil and gas industry strongly objected to the draft plan, citing that the plan was too restrictive, because it forced industry to use directional drilling practices for exploration. Directional drilling, by many standards, causes fewer impacts when producing energy resources, in that only a few wells are needed in order to successfully drill (Civ. No. 05-0460 BB/RHS). However, industry became disingenuous once they complained about the directional drilling stipulations, citing that the resource under Otero Mesa is not expected to be prolific enough to be able to use this practice (Yates, 2001). The industry’s persistence paid off with the new Bush administration, for in January 2004, the BLM altered its plan and in releasing its final proposal, authorized opening over a million acres of Otero Mesa to oil and gas development (Civ. No. 05-0460 BB/RHS).
During the initial planning stages of the draft plan for Otero Mesa, the vast majority of public comments were in favor of the most restrictive protections for the area. Likewise, between the issuance of the draft and the final proposal, there has been overwhelming public support for protecting Otero Mesa, including from the State of New Mexico. In January 2004, Governor Bill Richardson signed an Executive Order directing all state agencies to “provide support for the utmost protection of the Otero Mesa grasslands as a matter of State policy.” The governor went on to further say in his Consistency Review that the BLM’s plan for Otero Mesa “fails to even attempt to acknowledge the Chihuahuan Desert…as an important part of a larger ecoregion; and proposes only a few ad-hoc protections at small, isolated sites.” Prior to the approval of a proposed resource management plan, 43 C.F.R. 1610.3-2 requires that the BLM State Director submit the proposed plan for review to the Governor to identify any parts of the management plan that are “inconsistent with state of local plans, policies, or programs and provide written recommendations for changes to the plan.” Governor Richardson submitted his Consistency Review for Otero Mesa, and found six major problems with the BLM’s proposal, ranging from habitat degradation to watershed vulnerability. Furthermore, the Governor offered a balanced alternative that would set aside more than 600,000 acres of Otero Mesa as a National Conservation Area, while still allowing room for responsible development. The net result was a letter from the State BLM Director dismissing the Governor’s review, without allowing additional public comment to be submitted. After exhausting every avenue to achieve consensus, the State of New Mexico had no other option than to file a lawsuit against the BLM, and on April 22, 2005, did just that.