The vast and pristine network of caves that thread through the limestone and gypsum landscape of southeastern New Mexico are otherworldly in their beauty, rich in scientific and cultural revelation—and increasingly threatened by ongoing Permian Basin fossil exploration.
“Little is understood about the fissure-ridden subterranean landscape that makes up the one-million-acre karst region, making it difficult to comprehend all that’s at stake,” writes National Geographic. So as fossil companies push to extract as much as they can from under these ancient systems, they are risking a potential treasure trove of knowledge: the climate knowledge contained in millennia-old stalagmites and stalactites, the cultural knowledge preserved in Native American artifacts, and the medical knowledge that could lie in cave organisms yet to be discovered.
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But the Trump administration’s hell-bent pursuit of “energy dominance” gave these firms access to “thousands of sinkhole-prone acres that most probably harbour caves”—and that definitely harbour the aquifers that supply drinking water to communities throughout the region. Even President Joe Biden’s recent moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on public lands will offer no protection to regions already in the crosshairs of energy exploration.
The threat is such that conservationists have filed a lawsuit “seeking to overturn the Trump administration’s sale of more than one million acres of public lands in the west for [fossil] energy exploration,” writes National Geographic.
Those acres include several parcels located just north of a cave protection zone around the famous Carlsbad Caverns National Park. One of the caves in the park—the significantly undermapped Lechuguilla system, which is more than 150 kilometres long (and counting)—may well extend outside the protection zone.
And the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees oil and gas lease applications in the cavern-pocked region, is flying blind. National Geographic explains that, due to a lack of adequate mapping of the subsurface topography or data on life forms that make the underworld (rare bats, amphipods) and surface (prong-horn antelope, dunes sagebrush lizard) their home, BLM is often unable to use laws designed to protect these fragile environments. Put plainly: you can’t prevent drilling within 200 metres of a cave entrance if you don’t know where that entrance is.
And then there are the instances where BLM seems to have ignored even its own findings, as in its October 2020 decision to lease acreage to oil and gas drillers even though its own researchers warned that the drilling fluids could infiltrate a local aquifer.
What makes these leases even more troubling is the likelihood that pollutants in the water will end up in the tap. “Unlike sandstone terrain that traps pollutants in its spongelike subsurface, karst landscapes do not filter water, allowing it to flow unimpeded through large conduits and channels directly into aquifers.”
Regardless, following through on a 2017 executive order that eased “regulatory burdens” on oil and gas companies, BLM “directed its field offices to greatly truncate environmental review and comment periods,” a regulatory contraction that paid off handsomely both for the agency and the fossils. Under Trump, BLM “opened more than five million acres onshore to fossil fuel extraction between January 2017 and January 2020, compared with about 2.6 million acres auctioned off by the Obama Administration from 2014 to 2016.” The acceleration in leasing has, predictably, led to more accidents, from cave-ins to spills.
While none of the 1,261 oil and gas related spills that occurred in southeast New Mexico in 2018 were reported to have affected groundwater, retired BLM cave and karst expert James Goodbar told National Geographic that only a careful groundwater study—something by no means regularly conducted—could actually confirm that no contamination had taken place.
The magazine also points out that BLM’s coffers grew rich under Trump’s tenure, with the agency completing its “most profitable sale ever in September 2018, when it raked in US$972 million for 142 parcels.”