ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – As the national debate over increased oil and gas development wears on, an area in the Four Corners region long known for its natural gas deposits stands to be the next flashpoint as a Colorado company moves forward with plans to build a 140-mile pipeline across northwestern New Mexico that would be capable of moving 50,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The Bureau of Land Management is considering whether to permit the project by Saddle Butte Pipeline LLC. A public meeting was set for Thursday evening in Lybrook, but it could be early next year before the agency makes a final decision.
The San Juan Basin – an area that straddles the New Mexico-Colorado border – is on the verge of a shale-oil boom, according to industry experts. They say a new pipeline would ensure the oil developed as a result gets to market.
Saddle Butte’s project would be made up of dozens of miles of smaller pipelines that would be used to gather crude oil at well pads and other points. A larger pipeline would then move the oil south to a distribution center near Interstate 40 in western New Mexico.
The pipeline would cross a checkerboard of federal, state, private and tribal land. The company would also have to get approval from other land owners.
“Saddle Butte is confident that this pipeline solution will dramatically improve the safety and reliability of moving crude oil out of the area by substantially decreasing the truck traffic associated with regional production,” David Wait, the company’s chief operating officer, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Maureen Joe, assistant field manager for lands and renewable resources in the BLM’s Farmington office, said Thursday that the main complaints of residents in the area have been the truck traffic and dust.
Environmental groups are concerned that approval of the pipeline would open the door to at least a five-fold increase in production in the San Juan Basin.
“This is unprecedented,” said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Eisenfeld and others are accusing federal regulators of fast-tracking the pipeline without considering how best to manage the impending boom, a claim the BLM disputes.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Eisenfeld said. “They’re talking about an enormous amount of pipeline capacity. We, like everybody else, want more information and we want it scientifically analyzed, not just a boilerplate environmental assessment.”
Concerns over environmental impacts have stalled major projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline. But as development ramps up around the country thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, more pipeline projects are being designed.
On Wednesday, federal regulators approved a $700 million pipeline to bring Marcellus Shale natural gas from Pennsylvania into high-priced markets in New England and New York.
In New Mexico, critics want the Bureau of Land Management to weigh the effects of increased drilling on air quality, water resources, wildlife habitat and public health before giving the green light to Saddle Butte’s proposal.
The agency is in the process of updating the resource management plan for the area that includes the San Juan Basin, but it could be more than a year before that plan is finalized.