Oil & gas environmental enforcement fails test

The fox appears to be guarding the hen house in the nearby San Juan Basin. A new report is spotlighting government’s failure to monitor oil and gas drilling and adequately enforce environmental regulations. Northwest New Mexico, with its abundant natural gas reserves and equally abundant drilling, has reportedly suffered from some of the laxest Bureau of Land Management policies anywhere.

Released by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the report calls on the BLM to adequately fund and carry out inspection and enforcement programs. The study looked at the policies in field offices in Farmington, Grand Junction, Miles City, Mont., Dickinson, N.D., and Buffalo and Pinedale, both in Wyoming. The report discovered that the six offices conducted only 15 percent of their required high-priority environmental inspections in 2007. The Farmington office’s record was especially abysmal. Local land managers completed just 82 of their required 1,257 inspections, barely 6 percent of the mandated number. In addition, the lack of oversight came during an unprecedented local drilling boom and on the heels of the same office’s approval of 12,500 new wells.

“In response to the vast increase in expediting natural gas drilling in Farmington, citizens were promised that inspection and enforcement of natural gas project stipulations and approvals would be funded, staffed and prioritized,” said Mike Eisenfeld, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

The report goes on to call on the BLM to review the level of inspection resources and enforcement actions in the Farmington field office. “The underperformance by the Farmington Field Office on inspection and enforcement through 2008 points to the significant reform that is needed for the BLM to step up compliance,” Eisenfeld said.

Amazingly, the picture has actually improved in Farmington and the other field offices. Compared to 2006, the number of inspections and written reports went up substantially.

“They’re no longer falling behind, but they haven’t begun to close the gap,” said Peggy

Utesch, chair of Western Organization of Resource Councils. “BLM needs more resources to ensure that federal oil and gas resources are developed in an environmentally responsible manner that protects the interests of landowners, communities and taxpayers,”

Congressional funding is a major culprit behind the lack of oversight, according to the report. The Obama administration’s 2010 budget request adds $10.8 million to the BLM oil and gas program but does not indicate whether any of the increase would go to inspection and enforcement programs.

DHS Aerospace tapped for worlds

Durango students are once again blasting into international competition. Durango High School’s world championship Aerospace Design Team recently earned a berth to compete at the International Space Settlement Design Competition, held in July in Houston. The team will also present their design to the National Space Society in Orlando this weekend, on May 30.  

On May 15, the team learned that their latest design proposal was one of 12 in the world selected to compete in the international competition. In addition, the DHS proposal received the highest score of any of the entries. It should be no surprise. The local team has won the competition four times and most recently went back-to-back as world champs in 2007 and 2008.

The competition asks students to imagine themselves as the urban planners of the future. Aerospace teams must create a 20,000-person community sited on a space station in outer earth orbit. The designs must be complete with zero-gravity recreation, waste management, computer networking, places of employment and all of the necessities for human life.

This year’s Durango project has been dubbed “Columbiat” after the river in the Pacific Northwest. The 80-page proposal details an undulating landscape designed to maximize green space and public transport. A river, featuring class 3, 4 and 5

rapids, runs the length of the settlement. Columbiat is completely solar powered, and includes customizable living spaces and pneumatic transportation systems.

 “I have never seen such an intellectually well-rounded team, completely dedicated to creating a meticulous proposal,” said Daniel Garner, the team’s coach.

As an illustration of the students’ dedication and critical thinking, Garner highlighted a few of the plan’s finer points. “Such is the detail of this proposal that if you wanted to know what it would take to open a cafe on Columbiat, you would find various low-interest loan options, numerous location sites and building styles, and a network of available service providers, just by looking in the ‘business’ section,” he said. “These young men and women have thought of everything.”

The local team includes seniors Graham Dudley, Chris Young, Grace Wagner, Stephen Sebestyen, Sean Franklin, Cooper Stapleton, Jackson Beall and Jasper Bolton; juniors Anna Ortega, Noah Fischer and Nick Skahill; and sophomore Morgan Scarafiotti. The squad will square off against the entire planet at the Houston headquarters of NASA in late July.

Endangered fish making a recovery

An endangered Four Corners native is making a remarkable comeback. The numbers of humpback chub in the Grand Canyon increased 50 percent between 2001-08. Managers estimate that 6,000 to 10,000 chubs are now living and thriving in the Big Ditch.

The humpback chub is a freshwater fish that may live up to 40 years and is found only in the Colorado River Basin. Only six populations of endangered fish are currently known to exist, and one is in the Grand Canyon.

Matthew Andersen, a biologist with the United States Geological Survey, speculated that experimental high flows and a more normal flow schedule may be largely responsible for the fish’s recovery.

“Experimental flows from Glen Canyon Dam and above-average water temperatures as the result of drought conditions may have supported native fish,” he said. “Removal of some nonnative fish species in select locations may also have helped.”

Large numbers of rainbow and brown trout were removed near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. Both species of trout are thought to prey on young fish and compete with humpback chub for food. In addition, the Colorado River has warmed as the level of Lake Powell has dropped. This return to more normal temperatures is thought to have improved spawning conditions for the chub.

“The Grand Canyon is the one bright spot in the Colorado River Basin for native fishes, which is excellent news,” said Andersen.

– Will Sands



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January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows