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Conchas area ranchers for drilling

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By Martin Salazar

CONCHAS DAM — San Miguel County commissioners got an earful from constituents Wednesday on the draft oil and gas ordinance that they are considering.

But this time around, most of the speakers complained that the proposed ordinance goes too far in its efforts to regulate oil and gas drilling in San Miguel County, and that it is so restrictive that it amounts to an unlawful taking of private property without compensation.

That’s a far cry from what the Commission has been hearing at its meetings in Las Vegas, where many have criticized it for not adopting a community rights ordinance that outright bans oil and gas drilling in the county. Among those who don’t favor a community rights ordinance, many have publicly called for a regulatory ordinance that imposes even more stringent and costly requirements on the oil and gas industry than what is proposed in the draft ordinance.

Wednesday’s meeting, held at the Conchas Dam Fire Station and attended by about 100 people, drove home the point that regardless of what commissioners decide, there will be unhappy constituents. The meeting was significant because it was held in the eastern part of the county, the area where the oil and gas industry is interested in drilling.

Among those speaking out against the ordinance were Scott and Phil Bidegain, whose family owns the 180,000-acre T-4 ranch in Guadalupe, Quay and San Miguel counties.

Scott Bidegain, who described himself as a fourth-generation rancher, told commissioners that he understands the environmental concerns being raised but feels the draft ordinance infringes on private property rights.

Phil Bidegain acknowledged that the Commission is in a rough spot. But he added that he thinks the state regulations on oil and gas drilling that are already in place are sufficient.

Phil Bidegain also said he thinks the ordinance is so restrictive as to constitute a taking of private property rights.

“We’ve had our ranch for 112 years and have been taking care of our land…,” he said. “My family and I can take care of the land and water without the ordinance. The land is in our blood.”

Abby Quinn, who also owns a ranch in eastern San Miguel County, said the moratorium on oil and gas exploration that the county has had in effect for several years has hurt her family financially. She said Shell Oil Company has a mineral rights lease on the ranch, but because of the moratorium, the company has reduced its lease payments.

Quinn said that if oil were found on her ranch, she would use the proceeds for improvements to her ranch, things like fixing fences and roads and installing windmills.

“If you want to see this place grow, if you want to see better schools, hospitals and ranches, it’s in your best interest not to pass this ordinance,” Quinn said. “State regulations are working well.”

Leon Romero, who owns a small ranch in San Miguel County and has interests in oil and gas in other parts of the state, asked commissioners to consider the economic benefits of drilling. He said that as written, the draft ordinance requires the oil and gas industry to spend tens of thousands of dollars each month in fees and other mandates, even though there’s no guarantee that a well will be productive.

“The ordinance is really preventing any oil and gas development in San Miguel County,” he said.

Martin Honegger, the Trementina fire chief, said that if the ordinance is enacted, he believes it will close the door on the oil and gas industry. He told commissioners that young people in San Miguel County are often left with no option but to leave because there are no jobs. Oil and gas exploration could change that, he said.

Several representatives of the oil and gas industry also spoke.

Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the proposed ordinance is so complex that it will prevent the oil and gas industry from investing in San Miguel County.

He asked the Commission to base its decision on facts and not emotion. For example, he said, there’s no scientific basis for imposing a 10-mile buffer around Conchas Reservoir, which has been recommended.

To be sure, there were also a number of people speaking out against drilling and in particular hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process in which water, sand and chemicals are used to crack open rock deep below the surface to free oil and gas.

Jean Estrada said her husband’s family has been in the area for many years, and they chose it because of the quiet, peaceful way of life the area offers. She said she’s opposed to fracking because of the pollution and because it has been linked to earthquakes.

Victor Harp, of Conchas, said he knows first hand what it’s like to live next to a drilling operation. He said the oil and gas industry set up shop next to his home when he lived in San Juan County, ruining his peace and quiet. He said the noise was nonstop, there was a tremendous amount of truck traffic that tore up the roads, and the amount of water it consumed was incredible.

He also asked everyone to consider that it creates a boom and bust economy, meaning that when the oil dries up, the industry leaves.

The next hearing on the ordinance will be from 1:30 to 7 p.m. on April 22 at village hall in Pecos.