New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is facing off against the Department of Interior and its Bureau of Land Management over a plan to allow oil and gas drilling on his state’s pristine Otero Mesa — an expanse of desert grassland which the governor, with a touch of dramatic flair, has called “the West’s ANWR.”

Don’t mesa ’round with New Mexico.

Photo: Nathan Newcomer, NMWild.org.

On Monday, Richardson — whose name frequently pops up on lists of possible Democratic vice presidential nominees — released an official state report [PDF] slamming the BLM’s plan as “inconsistent with numerous state laws, rules, policies, programs, and plans.” The governor argues that the agency ignored the public interest when drawing up a scenario that will permit drilling in the 1.2 million-acre region; he contends that such development would jeopardize wildlife, ranching interests, and an aquifer that supplies drinking water to 800,000 people.

Meanwhile, environmental organizations have accused the BLM of serving up the Otero Mesa on a silver platter to fat-cat Republican donor George Yates, whose firm HEYCO (Harvey E. Yates Co., named for his ancestor) has more leases on the land than any other company and stands to gain the most from the new drilling rights.

Peter Altman, director of the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands, says this is the most overt example of rewarding campaign donors he’s seen to date: “What’s so remarkable about this case is how well-documented and blatant it is,” he told Muckraker. “At least in other cases they put some kind of fig leaf on it, but in this case it’s just naked decision-making to the benefit of the corporate interest.”

DOI spokespeople have vehemently denied any mutual back-scratching, and the department insists that drilling operations in the Otero Mesa region will be subject to the most rigorous environmental restrictions it has ever issued.

Muckraker was not able to reach Yates for comment, but in the past week he has loudly and publicly denied accusations that his family’s donations and fundraising efforts had anything to do with the BLM’s decision. “I’d give to more Democrats if I really wanted to buy influence,” he recently told The Associated Press, disregarding the fact that his favored party controls the executive branch and both houses of Congress.

Despite Yates’ protests, the paper trail connecting his family to the Bush administration is, to say the least, notable.

A report released last week by CPAL, “Cash, Connections, and Concessions: The Yates Family, the Bush Administration, and the Selling of Otero Mesa” [PDF], offers up evidence that the Yates family — which owns or is affiliated with more than a dozen oil and gas companies that do business in New Mexico — channeled some $250,000 in personal and employee contributions to GOP groups between 2000 and 2004. Yates himself has made tens of thousands of dollars of contributions a year to the Republican National Committee, and in 2002, he hosted a fundraiser for Vice President Dick Cheney at his home, where $1,000-plus donors were awarded their very own snapshot with the veep.

Yates also has numerous ties to J. Steven Griles, No. 2 at Interior: Yates’ family company, Yates Petroleum, employed Griles to lobby the BLM in 2001, the year President Bush took office. “There are clear overlaps between the time that Bush’s team was in command and Griles was on the Yates Petroleum payroll,” said Altman.

Yates Petroleum is also a client of National Environmental Strategies, a notorious lobbying firm that continues to pay Griles $284,000 a year, as part of a buyout deal that included Griles selling his client list to the firm. Griles’ own calendar records show that he personally weighed in on the Otero Mesa issue in December 2002, during a meeting with top BLM officials.

Whether or not the BLM’s plan is quid pro quo for years of political patronage, it certainly stands to benefit Yates. However, many other New Mexicans who traditionally fall into the Republican camp — including ranchers, hunters, and property-rights advocates — are mad as hell at the prospect of rigs sprouting up on the Otero Mesa.*

And, in the latest development, even the God Squad is chiming in against the drilling: Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M., recently sent a letter to New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R) asking for his assistance in protecting the rich biodiversity of the mesa’s grasslands.

*[Correction, 12 Mar 2004: This article originally stated that there were few supporters for the BLM’s plan to allow drilling on the Otero Mesa; in fact, there is a notable contingent of supporters in the state, including the editorial boards of the Albuquerque Journal and other newspapers.