Lawyer: Mora has say-so over drilling

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By David Giuliani

Mora County has the say-so over oil and gas drilling on the thousands of acres of state trust lands within its boundaries, an environmental attorney says.

In a recent letter, Bruce Frederick, an attorney with the Santa Fe-based New Mexico Environmental Law Center, contends that the county’s development guidance system can be used to regulate energy development. He sent his opinion to Drilling Mora County, which is fighting proposed oil and gas drilling.

Earlier this year, Albuquerque-based KHL Inc. started its search for mineral rights northeast of Mora, near Ocat. It’s the first part of a process that could lead to eventual drilling.

Under New Mexico law, an oil and gas lease conveys interest in land that should be regarded as a lessee’s private property, thus not state-owned, Frederick states. He cites state laws that require oil and gas lessees to comply with city and county ordinances.

John Bemis, assistant commissioner for the State Land Office, said he didn’t disagree with Frederick’s analysis that certain laws give the county powers over oil and gas development, although he contended that the state regulates spacing of wells. He said the county’s powers often depend on the terms of leases.

Bemis noted that the state held an oil and gas lease auction this week. While most of the leases are in southeast New Mexico — where most of the state’s oil and drilling activity occurs —some in Mora and next-door Colfax counties were also available, he said.

“There is a lot of activity we’re finding all over the state. Oil and gas prices are extremely high. Our job is to use our land to make money, and most of the money comes from oil and gas,” he said.

In the lease auction, tens of thousands of acres in northeastern New Mexico were leased for possible oil and gas exploration.

Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons said this week that the 12,900 acres leased in Mora County brought in $394,000 in rentals and bonuses.

Peter Martinez, chairman of the Mora County Commission, said he also believes the county’s regulations supersede the state’s in certain cases when it comes to oil and gas drilling.

Martinez said the county has directed its attorney, John Grubesic, to draft an oil and gas drilling moratorium that would likely last three to six months.

“If we needed to, we would extend it,” he said.