WASHINGTON – The government has eased Clinton-era oil and gas drilling restrictions on a large tract of desert grassland in New Mexico in a decision that benefits a large Republican donor in the state.
The donor, George Yates, says his contributions and fund-raising assistance to Vice President Dick Cheney had nothing to do with the decision. The Interior Department (search) says its drilling plan, while opening up more land in Otero Mesa (search), will be the most restrictive ever.
The Bush administration "would allow 141 oil and gas wells over about 7 million acres; Interior is committed to protecting our public lands," department spokesman Mark Pfeifle said.
However, environmentalists are crying foul.
The Bureau of Land Management (search) "surrendered to the demands of one oil company and the political power of the name to which it was connected," the Campaign to Protect America's Lands (search) said Thursday in contrasting the Bush administration's plan for Otero Mesa with the Clinton administration's.
The environmental group said the Interior Department's estimate of 143 wells is based on an outdated plan for Otero Mesa before Yates drilled a successful well there in the late 1990s.
"We expect to see a lot more drilling than the BLM will admit, given the number of companies that now want access," said Peter Altman.
Pfeifle called the environmental organization "a special interest fund-raising group that focuses exclusively on partisan misinformation." Among its supporters is Eric Schaeffer, who resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency (search), contending the Bush White House was undermining anti-pollution efforts at power plants that violate clean air laws.
During the Clinton presidency, one of Yates' companies previously drilled a successful natural gas well six years ago at Otero Mesa.
BLM subsequently proposed restricting drilling in many areas to near roadsides, drawing sharp criticism from one of Yates' companies.
"With all due respect, the notion that we can explore and develop the fluid minerals resource on federal lands by directionally drilling from the existing roads is silly!" a family member from George Yates' firm wrote the government in 2000.
Two months ago, the Bush administration eased the proposed drilling restrictions, saying that well drilling in Otero Mesa should be limited "to no more than 5 percent" of a leased area at any one time.
"The environmentalists are claiming that I was able to change a process to my benefit when in fact the result of the process is highly restricted land use," Yates said.
Cheney participated in a political fund-raiser hosted by Yates in 2002, and Yates has made over $90,000 in personal campaign donations over the past five years, almost all to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (search), which tracks political donations.
"I never discussed Otero Mesa with the vice president," said Yates. "Having him in my home for a political fund-raiser and discussing personal business would be in my judgment bad form."
Yates said, "I'd give to more Democrats if I really wanted to buy influence. CEOs of large corporations that are worried about political access give to both, but I don't play that game. I give to people who represent my political philosophy, and as a result I stand to be criticized."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was energy secretary in the Clinton administration, is among those protesting the development plan.
Yates Petroleum (search), an oil and gas company controlled by relatives of Yates, contributed over $100,000 in the 2002 elections, making it the No. 1 donor in New Mexico, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"My uncles and cousins don't have an interest in Otero Mesa on federal lands and I have no ownership in Yates Petroleum," George Yates responded.
Steven Griles, the No. 2 official at the Interior Department, once lobbied for Yates Petroleum, but "that has nothing to do with me or Otero Mesa," Yates said.