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Drilling law moving forward

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County hoping to conclude process by November

By Martin Salazar

After years of debate over the types of regulations that San Miguel County should implement on oil and gas drilling here, the county appears to be close to concluding the process.

“We’re in the homestretch,” Commission Chairman Nicolas Leger said.

At a special San Miguel County Commission meeting last Saturday, the Los Angeles planning and zoning attorney hired by the county to help draft the ordinance announced that the county is hoping to adopt a final version by November.

“This has been a long process,” Robert H. Freilich said. “I know many of you are weary. What we’re going to do is finish up by November.”

While there will be statutory hearings once an ordinance is presented to the Commission for possible adoption, Saturday’s meeting was the final ad hoc meeting on the issue. Commissioners have held the ad hoc meetings in Conchas Dam, Pecos and Las Vegas to gather public comment on the regulations being considered.

Among the complaints commissioners have heard is that the latest version has been watered down from the original one crafted by Freilich. Freilich, who was hired by the county in late 2012, had previously drafted an ordinance and turned it over to the county. County staff said they reworked the format of the draft ordinance to make it consistent with the county’s other ordinances, and in doing so they shortened it considerably.

“We’re going to return back to the earlier ordinance,” Freilich told the crowd. “The draft in some respects omitted a lot of key material that was in the original.”

Freilich also assured those in attendance that their comments would be considered as he drafts a new version.

The prospect of oil and gas drilling in San Miguel County has been a contentious issue.  

Drilling proponents tout the economic benefits. But they have said that the ordinance being considered imposes so much red tape and such high fees that it would effectively kill any efforts to bring the industry here.

“If you pass that ordinance you will have succeeded in discouraging private capital from investing in San Miguel County,” said Steve Henke, president of the state Oil and Gas Association.

Drilling opponents point to the environmental consequences. Many of them have asked the Commission to enact an all-out ban on drilling, particularly 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.

Freilich said he has researched the ban proposal and come to the conclusion that the state constitution doesn’t allow it.

“I advised this county that there is no legal power on the part of the counties or cities to ban drilling in their respective jurisdictions,” he said. But he added that the county can take steps to ensure that if there is drilling, that the county is protected and that it benefits.

The county is looking to require companies to pay for a series of assessments and studies before any drilling begins. Companies would also have to enter into a development agreement with the county and agree to pay for all the new public infrastructure that would be needed.

Freilich said the ordinance will also try to force companies to disclose what chemicals are being used in the extraction process. Oil and gas companies have typically asserted that they don’t need to disclose that information because it’s proprietary.

As currently written, the draft ordinance would restrict any oil and gas exploration to the sparsely populated eastern part of the county, though it attempts to prohibit drilling near any rivers or streams. 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.

Freilich has developed oil and gas drilling ordinances for many communities, including Santa Fe County. He said that in the three-and-a-half years since Santa Fe County’s ordinance was implemented, there have been no oil and gas applications submitted. Freilich said some attribute the lack of applications to the fact that it’s a strict ordinance.

A strong ordinance
Rock Ulibarri, who is running unopposed for a Commission seat, said that he’d like to see an ordinance that is so restrictive that the oil and gas industry opts to stay away.

“Short of a ban, I think we should have the strongest ordinance,” he said.

Many county residents, including Bob Wessely, Brad Turk, and Leslie Hammel-Turk have invested countless hours researching the environmental pitfalls of oil and gas drilling and fracking, and they’ve submitted binders of research to the county.

Because input was initially limited to three minutes per person, they coordinated a presentation by 13 individuals to highlight some of the key things they had uncovered in their research, and suggestions for making the ordinance stronger.

“This industry is far more challenging than anything the county has ever seen,” Hammel-Turk said. Among the things they highlighted was the link between fracking and earthquakes, the need to bring in  professionals to administer the ordinance, a request that the required fees be increased and a request that the county come up with an ordinance that will stand up in court.

Hamil-Turk also praised the decision to go back to Freilich’s version of the ordinance.

Economic benefits
But the Commission also heard from a number of people who want to see drilling in San Miguel County.

Jackie Abeyta of Sapello said that while she agrees that we need to protect ourselves and our water supply, she is against the ordinance. She asked commissioners to consider those in the community who are struggling because they can’t find jobs.

“Please don’t make the ordinance so strict that oil and gas companies will not come here because people need employment,” she said. “Young people need a way to better themselves.”

Matthew Gonzales who grew up in northern New Mexico and who now works for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, also spoke about the economic benefits that would result from drilling.

“I’m here because I want to see opportunity for northern New Mexico,” he said. “My friends can’t come back here because there are no jobs, no opportunities here.”

Henke said the ordinance being considered would cost the industry millions of dollars to comply with.

“To be perfectly frank, and to eliminate the charade, the question is whether you want oil and gas in any part of the county or you don’t,” he said.

“The record should reflect that this ordinance is not about allowing oil and gas exploration in eastern San Miguel County,” said rancher Phil Bidegain. “It’s actually going to deny any exploration of oil and gas in San Miguel County totally...”