ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The Bureau of Land Management has cleared the way for oil and gas drilling on more than a dozen parcels of national forest land in northern New Mexico that were initially put up for bid more than a year ago.
The decision came last week despite opposition from environmentalists, who are now weighing whether to appeal or to take the case to federal court.
"They didn't have to issue these leases. They could have changed their mind, but instead they put industry first," said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.
He accused the agency of showing no willingness to limit oil and gas approvals despite more than 100 protests that were filed by numerous individuals and a couple of community groups in Rio Arriba County.
BLM officials argued Friday that specialists with both the agency's Farmington office and the U.S. Forest Service reviewed nearly three dozen parcels, considering everything from effects on water and air quality to cultural resources and economics.
Many of the parcels were shelved because they didn't comply with current land use plans or because of new information gained during public scoping meetings. That information required more coordination with Native American tribal officials, according to the decision document.
The decision clears the way for the leasing of 13 parcels covering nearly 31 square miles along the San Pedro Mountains north of Cuba, New Mexico.
"The team determined that the environmental analysis completed for the lease sale was in conformance with the BLM's resource management plan and the Forest Service's oil and gas environmental impact statement and therefore the BLM will be issuing the leases," BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said.
It's not clear how soon any of the lease holders would begin drilling, but some experts say a slowdown in the market makes it unlikely there will be any activity in the immediate future.
The number of rigs exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. this week declined by 12 to 775, according to the oilfield services company Baker Hughes Inc. However, New Mexico did gain two rigs this week.