Four ranchers who own land in the San Juan Basin, one of the largest gas reserves in the world, are campaigning for tougher enforcement by the Bureau of Land Management, which supervises energy development on adjoining public land in the same area.
Ranchers locked up two gates in a brief protest Thursday to demonstrate their anger over open gates, dead livestock, spills and erosion they blame on the companies. There are more than 500 drilling permits on federal, state and tribal lands in the area.
"All we are trying to do is stop the damage that's happening on our private property," said rancher Tweeti Blancett in a phone interview Friday.
Blancett and her husband, Linn, ranch on land that has been in his family since the 1870s. They have grazing permits to run their cattle on public lands in addition to their own land, as do three other protesting ranchers in the basin.
"We don't need more rules, we just need enforcement of the current rules," she said.
Blancett said they have taken their complaints to the state's delegation to Congress but no serious action has been taken.
But the head of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said the protesting ranchers have refused to attend his group's meetings with San Juan ranchers to work out the same kinds of problems.
"Instead of trying to attract headlines and fighting this issue with news releases, they ought really to be trying to find a solution," said Bob Gallagher, president of the association.
For more than a year, oil and gas company officials have been meeting with local ranchers to correct problems, he said. While about four ranchers are protesting, Gallagher said 15 to 20 other ranchers attend those meetings, he added.
Gallagher said that locking gates as the ranchers are doing is illegal because the access rights have usually been negotiated in advance and the courts have ruled that mineral rights take precedence over surface rights.
The ranchers have the support of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango, Colo.-based group that campaigns for more corporate and government responsibility in the development of oil and gas in the basin that stretches from New Mexico to Colorado.
"We have some common ground on these issues," said Alan Rolston, an alliance spokesman who attended the protest Thursday in New Mexico.
The San Juan Basin, one of the world's largest gas reserves, covers nearly 8,000 square miles of the two states. It produces 1.1 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, about 6 percent of the nation's usage.
An official from the BLM office in nearby Farmington attended the protest and said on Friday that most of the operations are in compliance.
"Occasionally there are problems and when we are aware of them we address them," said David Mankiewicz, assistant field manager for minerals. "A majority of the time, I would say the industry is a good corporate citizen."
The BLM administers about 1.5 million surface acres of land in the two-state region and about 19,000 wells, he pointed out.
Mankiewicz said the ranchers alleged there were some violations but he toured the area with an inspector and found none.
He said that "the toughest part" is the roads: there are 17,000 miles of connecting roads, some of them 50 years old. He said the industry is working to improve them.
Gas produced from the basin generates about $460 million a year in royalties paid to the federal government. In the next 20 years, another 10,000 wells are expected to be drilled in the basin, Mankiewicz said.
(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas.)