ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order Monday aimed at ending a decades-long fight over development of oil and natural gas in an area that makes up the nation's greatest potash reserve.
Under the new order, "drilling islands" will be created within the 780-square-mile area where potash is protected in southeast New Mexico.
The new plan came as the two industries have been locked in legal battles over development of fossil fuels and potash in southeastern New Mexico since the late 1930s. Potash is primarily used to make fertilizer.
Salazar said the new plan should help bury those long-held disputes.
"This comprehensive strategy will allow us to move beyond years of disagreement and litigation between the energy and potash industries and provides a balanced approach that will strengthen New Mexico's economy," Salazar said.
The area, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, produces three-quarters of the potash mined in the U.S. Part of the Permian Basin that spans New Mexico and Texas, the area is also home to nearly 800 federal oil and gas leases.
Salazar released a draft order in July that on a program that would identify areas where development can happen safely thanks to new technologies. Buffer zones would be established to allow oil and gas drillers to go after the fossil fuels without compromising potash deposits.
The decision drew praise from both of New Mexico senators.
"This Secretarial Order protects New Mexico jobs, ensuring the co-development of potash, oil, and gas," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "I applaud Secretary Salazar and the potash and oil and gas communities for their coordinated efforts to resolve this issue."
The potash lies above the oil and gas deposits. The potash industry long objected to oil and gas development taking place below its operations, claiming that such drilling spoils the potash and presents a potential hazard to miners who work underground.
In January, Salazar met with representatives from both industries. A committee was formed and has been working to develop a framework for the order.