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Draft drilling law to be reviewed

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Commission planning special meeting

By Martin Salazar

San Miguel County commissioners in April asked their Los Angeles-based consultant to come up with a draft ordinance that imposes strict rules for oil and gas extraction in the county. They got what they asked for.

The latest draft of the county’s oil and gas ordinance is 111 pages and sets out a laundry list of things that the industry must do before any drilling can be done in San Miguel County.

Among the provisions contained in the draft ordinance:

• A water availability assessment report would be required. The report would include an evaluation of water supply for the estimated life of the project, an assessment of available water supplies to determine if drillers can meet the demand associated with the project, identification of suppliers and an assessment identifying existing water rights. If water rights are insufficient, a plan would have to be submitted identifying alternatives.

• A clause would be inserted into all development agreements and into development approvals noting that should severe drought and water unavailability continue, and during any future periods when drought and water unavailability may persist or worsen, the county reserves the right to suspend existing and permitted oil and gas development until adequate water resources become available.

• A setback of 1.5 miles would be imposed for “important underground aquifers, and surface aquatic, acequia and riparian habitats such as floodplains, springs, wetlands and drainages including ... the Canadian River Basin.”

• The oil and gas industry would be required to document “all community health effects, and these effects must be scrutinized, and totally mitigated before drilling, hydrological fracturing and extraction occur.”

The draft ordinance also imposes impact fees on the oil and gas industry, requiring drillers to cover the cost of additional public infrastructure that will be needed as a result of their operations. And the draft ordinance would require two public hearings be held once applications are complete.

Those requirements are but a fraction of the hoops that drillers would need to jump through in order to set up shop in the county.

The draft ordinance was unveiled at a Commission meeting last month and is available on the county’s website at www.smcounty.net/. Click on the link “San Miguel County Preliminary Draft Oil and Gas Ordinance” to view it.

County Manager Les Montoya told the Optic last week that he was still reading through the draft. The county hopes to vet the draft ordinance and enact it by Dec. 13, which is when the county’s moratorium on oil and gas exploration expires. That moratorium has been in place for nearly four years.

The Commission has been informed that the oil and gas industry is interested in the southeastern portion of the county, particularly the Trementina sub-basin of the Tucumcari basin.

Oil and gas drilling has been a controversial topic in San Miguel County and the city of Las Vegas in recent years. Some environmental activists have been pushing for an outright ban on oil an gas drilling in the county, while proponents of the industry have been pressuring county officials to allow extraction.

Activists argue that the dangers of oil and gas exploration, particularly franking, are too high, given the water shortages in the area. Proponents, including members of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, point to the jobs and other economic benefits that drilling would bring to San Miguel County.

Commissioners announced five months ago that they had ruled out an outright ban on extraction, but they each voiced support for a strong ordinance that protects the water, land and well-being of the county’s residents.

The commissioners hired Los Angeles planning and zoning attorney Robert H. Freilich in December to help draft the county’s ordinance. Freilich has drafted oil and gas ordinances across the country.

The County Commission is planning to hold a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 17 to discuss the draft ordinance. At that meeting, commissioners and county staff are planning to discuss the proposed ordinance with Freilich, who will take part via telephone or Skype. That is when commissioners are scheduled to take any formal action on changes to the draft. Freilich will then be asked to integrate those changes and make the new draft available to commissioners for their Oct. 8 meeting.

The new draft will also be forwarded to the Planning & Zoning Commission for review, public hearing and recommendations to the Commission.

The County Commission wants to hear the Planning & Zoning Commission’s recommendation on the draft ordinance at its Nov. 12 meeting. At that meeting, the County Commission plans to take formal action adopting a resolution proposing the final draft, with any changes. At that point, the county plans to publish a summary of the draft ordinance in the Optic and to hold two public hearings in late November or early December. The public hearings will take place in Las Vegas and Pecos.

The County Commission plans to take a final vote on adopting an ordinance in early December.