The difficult task of establishing regulations for the oil and gas industry in San Miguel County moved to the front burner this week as the County Commission began taking testimony on a draft ordinance that was developed by county staff.
At its regular meeting on Tuesday, the commission heard a presentation from Rio Arriba County Attorney Ted Trujillo on his experience with developing an oil and gas drilling ordinance for that county. At that same meeting commissioners fielded comments from members of San Miguel County’s Oil and Gas Task Force and from members of the public. Then on Thursday the commission launched the first of three public hearings on oil and gas drilling in the county in what was scheduled to be a daylong hearing.
A second hearing is scheduled for 1 to 8 p.m. on Monday at the New Mexico Highlands University student center ballroom. A third hearing has been tentatively scheduled for 1 to 8 p.m. on Oct 25, but the location of that hearing has yet to be confirmed.
The prospect of oil and gas drilling has become a hot-button issue in San Miguel County over the last year, with many local residents packing City Council and County Commission meetings to demonstrate their opposition to it, particularly when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, a process whereby a large amount of pressurized water with chemicals is injected into wells and bores to crack rock and free oil or gas.
Drilling opponents argue that allowing drilling in San Miguel County will be detrimental to the environment and that drilling and fracking aren’t feasible in this area because of the massive amounts of water the industry uses and the fact that the water supply in the county is limited.
Supporters of the oil and gas industry have argued that it would bring jobs to the area and boost the local economy.
A moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the county was enacted to give the county time to come up with regulations for the industry.
That moratorium is set to expire in February, although the commission has been told that it could extend the moratorium again if it needs more time to get an ordinance in place.
The county unveiled a draft oil and gas ordinance in August.
Once adopted, the ordinance will govern oil and gas exploration in the county. A 10-member Oil and Gas Task Force had been assigned the job of drafting the ordinance, but county staff took over the task in March.
The draft ordinance takes no position on fracking. County staff have said the commission itself should determine how that is handled in the ordinance.
Local activists told the commission on Tuesday that they had gathered more than 900 signatures from area residents opposed to fracking, and they asked the commission to pay attention to their constituents.
Rociada resident Bob Pearson likened the situation to a David and Goliath struggle, calling area residents David and the oil and gas industry Goliath.
Many of the speakers tried to convey the gravity of the decision at hand.
Task force member Kate Daniel said the oil and gas ordinance is likely the most important issue the commission has tacked, and she told commissioners that the ordinance they come up with will likely be their legacy.
“This is our only chance to get this right,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of PROTECT San Miguel County, a local grassroots organization, county resident Brad Turk told the commission that oil and gas development would be unlike any other planning and zoning issue the county has ever experienced because of its complexity and the immense impact it can have over many generations.
“If oil and gas comes to San Miguel County it won’t be for 10 or even 100 wells and facilities, but more like thousands,” Turk said. “The process to review each of the applications for development, and to monitor and enforce them once approved will require staffing and technical expertise far beyond what the county now possesses. And the costs of mistakes are incalculable.”
Bob Wessely, also speaking on behalf of PROTECT San Miguel County, outlined what he described as a series of flaws in the draft ordinance, including the fact that it doesn’t require monitoring wells before drilling begins to get a baseline measurement, leaving open the possibility that the oil and gas industry could argue that water contamination was present before they drilled. Wessely urged the commission to flesh out the “skeleton” draft ordinance and to re-issue a revised one before holding public input sessions.
“We understand the urgency the county now feels in developing an ordinance,” Wessely said. “We hope the county recognizes and balances the need for speed with the equally or even more important need for quality.”
Trujillo, the Rio Arriba County attorney, told commissioners that if the oil and gas industry does in fact take off in San Miguel County, the county will probably need more staff in its planning and zoning department to oversee it.
He also told the commission that one of the key questions they should try to get to the bottom of is who owns the mineral estate in San Miguel County. In most instances, property owners in New Mexico don’t own mineral rights to their property.
Trujillo also said the county should try to figure out what the oil and gas industry is seeing in San Miguel County that is drawing its interest.
The county’s Oil and Gas Task Force included both environmentalists and representatives of the oil and gas industry.
Karin Foster, who represented the industry on the task force, thanked the commission and county staff for the time they have invested in the issue, saying that establishing an ordinance allows the oil and gas industry to decide whether it wants to invest in San Miguel County.
Commenting on the county’s draft ordinance, Foster said that while counties have zoning authority it is the state’s Oil Conservation Division that oversees oil and gas development in New Mexico.
As such, she argued, the hydraulic fracking issue is “wholly within the authority” of the OCD. She also stated that ground water monitoring falls under the jurisdiction of the state Environment Department or the Office of the State Engineer.
Foster suggested that the county look at establishing different restrictions within different areas of the county, explaining that she doesn’t think a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire county works well.
For example, she said, Las Vegas proper would not be a good place for drilling because of the population density, and the industry isn’t interested in drilling in the city.
Asked to respond to suggestions that the county adopt a strict ordinance similar to the one adopted by Santa Fe County, Foster said she feels that if the Santa Fe County ordinance is ever challenged in court, most of it would be stricken down as unconstitutional.
Two other task force members cautioned the commission not to take the industry’s word on what the county can and can’t regulate.
Both Daniel and Pat Leahan said they, too, have consulted environmental attorneys, and those attorneys have a different interpretation of the law than the oil and gas industry’s stance.
Leahan also cautioned activists and those opposed to oil and gas drilling in the area to remain united, saying that fighting among one another will do nothing but hurt their cause. She said Shell Oil is the enemy, not each other.
Daniel told the commission that she has spent thousands of hours over the last three years researching oil and gas drilling issues.
She said oil and gas companies are neither angels nor demons, but rather profit seekers. She said those companies will be focused on maximizing their profits and not on protecting the environment.
The draft ordinance, as it stands, is too simple and fails to protect the county, Daniel said. Given the stakes and the great potential for harm to the environment, she said, the county needs a strong ordinance, and if it needs to hire more staff to enforce it, then so be it.
Daniel said that among the changes needed in the draft is a requirement for pollution baseline testing, which would be done before drilling begins, and follow-up monitoring.
“This is vitally important, because whenever pollution of the air or water occurs following the industry’s activities, the industry is always able to deny causation, saying that the ‘contaminants were there all along.’ Baseline testing eliminates this gift to the industry,” she said.
She said the ordinance should also require the industry to adhere to oil and gas industry best management practices and that the insurance and bonding requirements imposed on drillers need to be substantially higher.
“This is also a critical component, as an operator can literally walk away from immense damage caused by its negligence, leaving the damage as the county’s problem,” she said.
Task force member Jeff Mills recommended that the county prohibit all exploratory activity for oil and gas development or oil and gas drilling operations within what he called the mountain region — the hogback ridge or creston that trends north-south from the Mora County line near Sapello and continues southward until the boundary line intersects Interstate 25. The boundary would also include I-25 from the intersection point southward and westward to the intersection of I-25 and the Santa Fe County line near Pecos.
2.5-mile buffer zone
Mills, who spent more than two decades in the oil and gas exploration business and who spent another 11 years with the New Mexico Environment Department, said the county should impose a drilling prohibition in the mountain region because the area provides a major source of acquifer recharge.
“The additional 2.5 mile buffer zone east of and parallel to the hogback or creston creates a buffer zone that includes Storrie Lake and the city of Las Vegas,” he wrote in his comments to the commission. “The majority of the San Miguel County population and private water supply wells exist within the mountain region… This important source of surface and ground water warrants extra protection.”