Greenwire: NEW MEXICO: More counties craft drilling rules amid uptick in exploration

by April ReeseGreenwire
February 27th, 2013

SANTA FE, N.M. -- Several New Mexico counties are crafting measures aimed at warding off oil and gas development, but a bill introduced recently in the state Legislature could render them moot.

At least three counties -- Rio Arriba, Mora and San Miguel, all in northern New Mexico -- are considering oil and gas ordinances. They're following in the footsteps of Santa Fe County, which passed an ordinance requiring environmental safeguards a few years ago, and, more recently, the city of Las Vegas, which adopted a measure banning hydraulic fracturing altogether. Fracking is widely used throughout New Mexico due to the geology here.

Over the past few years, oil and gas companies have taken an interest in new areas of New Mexico that may contain untapped reserves. But environmental groups and some residents fear that if those leases are developed, drilling could foul increasingly coveted water resources amid a punishing drought and fragment wildlife habitat in some of the most picturesque places in the state.

For example, Mora County, population 5,200, is composed primarily of scattered ranches and farms. If Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other companies drill on the 144,000 acres of mineral leases they hold there, the county's landscape -- and its bucolic way of life -- would drastically change, said Kathleen Dudley, co-founder of Drilling Mora County, a local group opposing oil and gas development in the area.

San Miguel County's draft measure calls for "responsible economic development" that protects water, air, wildlife and other resources in the northeastern New Mexico county, which surrounds Las Vegas.

Rio Arriba County's draft proposal, which would strengthen an existing ordinance, says the measure is needed "to control and prevent adverse effects and impacts" from oil and gas drilling on the "priceless, unique and fragile ecosystem" of the county. County commissioners plan to hold a meeting on the measure March 6 with a vote scheduled for March 28.

Colfax County, which may also overlie significant reserves, is considering crafting a similar measure.

But industry officials say such ordinances are unnecessary and could further sour the state's economy -- at a time when federal funding to states is on the chopping block.
"It should be a concern to every New Mexican," said Wally Drangmeister, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association. "The oil and gas industry is a huge industry in our state -- it's one of the major legs of the stool in terms of the economics of the state, and if that were to be severely hampered, there's nothing on the horizon, in my view, that would be able to replace that."

Furthermore, municipalities and counties may not even have the authority to adopt such measures under state law, he added.

"Some of them seem like they're on the path to overstep at least what's in the state constitution," Drangmeister said. "To just absolutely prohibit oil and gas activity is probably a step too far."

A bill recently introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Carlos Cisneros (D) would reinforce the state's authority to override local oil and gas ordinances.

In recent weeks, however, Cisneros has backed off the bill somewhat, refraining from submitting it for its first committee review.

"It doesn't look like it's going anywhere this session, but having something like that ... would be good," Drangmeister said.

Community rights?

New Mexico is an energy-rich state and has come to depend on severance taxes from the oil and gas industry to fund education and other state programs. Its two main hot spots are northwestern New Mexico, part of the natural-gas-rich San Juan Basin, and southeastern New Mexico, where the Permian Basin continues to gush oil. In fact, 2012 was the most productive year for southeastern New Mexico oil producers since the 1930s, Drangmeister said.

But energy development is an entirely new prospect for most of north-central and northeastern New Mexico, where the economy is still largely based on ranching and farming with some tourism contributing to local coffers as well. The region also has more water than some other parts of the state.

Last summer, drilling critics formed the New Mexico Coalition for Community Rights, which is working to establish protective ordinances across the state. It's part of a larger, national effort spearheaded by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to get ordinances in place across the country that assert the rights of communities over the rights of corporations, according to Dudley, who is also involved with the coalition. So far, more than 140 communities around the country have adopted such measures. About a dozen are oil and gas ordinances that ban fracking.

In New Mexico, community rights advocates are hoping the anti-drilling measures will be legally challenged.

"We're passing these local ordinances, and you know, industry, take us to court," Dudley said. "Expose the fact that within our own community, we can't protect our own community."

A court battle would hopefully lead to a constitutional amendment upholding community rights, she added.

"Our only opportunities are on the local level, where our local commissioners are more concerned about the health and safety of their citizens" than state officials, Dudley said.

The state has adopted two measures in recent years designed to address concerns over oil and gas development near communities, however: the 2007 New Mexico Surface Owners Protection Act, which requires oil and gas operators to notify landowners before drilling and give compensation for any damage, and a 2008 pit rule that requires operators to more carefully dispose of drilling wastes.

Shortly after Gov. Susana Martinez (R) took office in January 2011, though, the industry challenged the pit rule, which is currently being reviewed by the Oil Conservation Division