Master Leasing Plans: An Opportunity to Restore Balance 

Photo courtesy of Tom Vaughan. 

Photo courtesy of Tom Vaughan. 

Northwestern New Mexico has a long history of natural gas development.  Over the years, industry has drilled over 40,000 wells and constructed a vast network of roads and pipelines.  This has created jobs and been good for the economy, but has also scarred the landscape, damaged cultural resources and disrupted the traditional lifestyles of native communities

Thousands of more wells are coming, as the industry is returning to drill for oil.  Federal agencies – primarily, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – will manage most of the drilling.  This can be done haphazardly – by evaluating leases, wells and pipelines on a case-by-case basis without ever looking across the landscape and thinking about what can be done to protect the landscape, cultural resources and native communities. 

Or the BLM can prepare what is known as a “master leasing plan” (MLP) as the Farmington Field Office updates their oil & gas plan for northwestern New Mexico.  MLPs are a “smart-from-the-start” zoning approach that identifies where leasing and drilling should happen – and where it should not – before those activities are proposed.  MLPs can help ensure that oil and gas drilling – for so long a dominant activity in northwestern New Mexico – is balanced with the protection of cultural resources, clean air and clean water as well as the traditional lifestyles of native communities. 


According to a bipartisan 2014 Colorado College Poll, New Mexicans support the “master leasing plan” approach—which develop goals for maintaining the condition of natural resource values and identify resource protection measures that can be adopted—by a two-to-one margin

The benefits of the master leasing plan

Prepared with community involvement and input:  The BLM prepares MLPs by engaging directly with communities and working with them to identify resources and activities, such as grazing, plant gathering and cultural practices, that need to be protected from drilling.  Thus, MLPs provide residents with the opportunity to influence where and how oil and gas drilling takes places within and around their communities

Coordination with other agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs:  MLPs are also prepared by working closely with other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  Close coordination between the BLM and BIA will be critical to protecting northwestern New Mexico’s cultural and natural resources, because industry is also planning to drill for oil on tribal lands.

Manage drilling on existing leases:  Much of northwestern New Mexico has already been leased for oil and gas drilling, including on tribal lands and around sensitive places like Chaco Canyon.  This would normally make it very difficult to address new concerns for the impacts of drilling on community values.  However, MLPs provide the BLM with broad authority and a set of tools to protect communities from drilling impacts, even when that happens on land that’s already been leased to industry.

Those tools can include protections such as:

  • limiting how many well pads are drilled by requiring horizontal drilling;
  • requiring that drilling companies use the latest, best technologies for cutting down air pollution and flaring;
  • requiring that no development occur on the surface of a given area (known as no surface occupancy);
  • avoiding impacts altogether of sacred sites and cultural resources;
  • mitigating impacts to local infrastructure, such as roads and bridges;
  • phased development so that proper reclamation and restoration of a site occurs before new development; and
  • ensuring a sound plan for protecting water resources and supplies and proper wastewater disposal.