Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Nevada must keep guard up against careless environmental stewardship

Carlsbad, N.M., is about 850 miles away from Las Vegas, but a situation involving the Bureau of Land Management there is causing ears to perk up in Nevada.

Recently, whistleblowers accused the BLM office in Carlsbad of ignoring violations of environmental and archaeological laws by companies that have flocked into the area in recent years to drill for oil and natural gas.

In one case, a company allegedly plowed an access road through a centuries-old earthen oven or fire pit. Although the road was built in defiance of a BLM recommendation, the company apparently faced no consequences.

Staffers in the Carlsbad office also have complained to government investigators that managers approved drilling plans without getting mandatory approval from biologists and cave experts. In addition, a supervisor in the office reportedly assured a roomful of employees they would be “protected” in expediting drilling permits.

One retired Carlsbad BLM employee summed up the situation this way to the High Country News: “There were a lot more requests for applications (for drilling and rights of way) than we had the personnel to process. No one was paying enough attention to anything.”

So what does possible corruption in southeast New Mexico have to do with Nevada? Nothing directly, but environmentalists say the “drill, baby, drill” attitude being described by whistleblowers in Carlsbad exists here too. And although there have been no reports of malfeasance among individual federal staff members in Nevada, environmental watchdogs say they’ve been appalled by new policies and procedures that the Trump administration has put in place to open up the state’s public lands for energy exploration.

Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, accused the administration of “cutting corners and subverting environmental laws” in Nevada to facilitate increased leasing.

“The administration is offering literally hundreds of thousands of acres of Nevada’s public lands to oil companies every quarter,” Donnelly said in an email to the Sun. “And the environmental review documents that they are legally required to prepare have been avoiding any site-specific analysis of impacts — so for instance, BLM might lease out a parcel that contains a Native American cultural site or a sensitive or endangered species, without even having analyzed the impacts to that resource first.”

In addition, Donnelly said, the feds had reduced the amount of time the public is allowed to review and comment on leasing proposals.

That’s alarming, because drilling presents a number of hazards for Nevada and beyond. It threatens our vulnerable groundwater aquifers, which don’t recover quickly from damage. It puts rare wildlife and archaeological sites at risk, and it generates additional fossil fuels that contribute greenhouse gases to the environment and speed climate change.

So it’s critical for those who watchdog the BLM and other federal authorities to remain vigilant. Environmental groups, state leaders and congressional delegates also must keep a sharp eye on protecting the state from the kind of irresponsible oil and gas exploration that apparently is being condoned in New Mexico.

The good news for Nevada is that the state has relatively little in the way of oil deposits — nothing nearly on par with the Permian Basin that stretches from New Mexico to Texas. In fact, the BLM just recently approved the first oil well in the state in two years. So demand for leases is fairly limited in Nevada compared with other states.

Also in Nevada’s favor, environmentalists and elected leaders have worked together in recent years to stop the Trump administration from running roughshod. A major victory came this spring when the U.S. Forest Service denied a proposal to release 54,000 acres for oil leasing in the Ruby Mountains.

But the feds aren’t stopping. They’re offering hundreds of thousands of acres to energy companies, including areas sacred to Native American tribes and adjacent to such natural treasures as the Great Basin National Park and the Basin and Range National Monument. The next leasing sale is scheduled for July 30 and will include 389,000 acres.

Given Nevada’s enormous potential for renewable energy development — solar, geothermal and wind — the push for oil and gas exploration here is both counterintuitive and counterproductive.

That being the case, it’s critical to keep the Trump administration in check on its push for drilling.