Mora County residents warned about oil, gas drilling

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By David Giuliani

MORA — Most speakers during a public meeting this week on possible oil and gas drilling in Mora County had a similar message — beware.

A new group, Drilling Mora County, which opposes drilling, invited a number of people from environmental groups and government agencies to speak about the effects of energy development. Missing were any voices from the oil and gas industry itself.

Organizers said they had invited representatives of Albuquerque-based KHL Inc., which is looking to lease mineral rights northeast of Mora, a first step that could lead to eventual drilling. But the company didn’t show.

The forum was originally supposed to be in the form of a County Commission meeting, but that meeting was canceled, with Drilling Mora County carrying on.

More than 200 people packed the Mora schools gym to listen to nine panelists give their views on oil and gas drilling. Some residents in the Ocat area have reportedly already signed leases with KHL.

Gwen Lachelt of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which has an office in Durango, Colo., described how energy development has created a spiderweb of roads, wells and well pads on the landscape of northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. She advised Mora County residents to do much research before signing away their mineral rights to oil and gas companies.

“Look before you lease. Consult an attorney if you have the resources,” she said. “Signing the lease the company gives you is like signing a blank check.”

Lachelt said that if landowners agree to oil and gas drilling, they can add conditions to reduce the impact on the environment. She noted that most laws dealing with energy development, including New Mexico’s, were written well before drilling came into conflict with homes. Drilling causes problems such as noise, dust, heavy traffic and contaminated water, she said.

She told the audience that it has been found that property values decline 22 percent after the coming of oil and gas wells.

Bruce Frederick, an attorney with the Santa Fe-based New Mexico Environmental Law Center, presented a legal opinion that suggested Mora County develop regulations that deal directly with oil and gas drilling. However, he stated in the opinion that the county already has rules that require companies get conditional-use permits for such activity.

Frederick also warned residents about signing agreements with companies too quickly.

“They will use the agreements to use your property in any way to extract oil and gas,” he said. “Don’t just look at the royalty amounts.”

He said landowners can require such things as fences around wells, setback distances and waste pits that are less harmful to the environment.

Paula Garcia, president of the Mora Land Grant and executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, referred to aerial photos of southwestern Colorado showing the spiderweb of energy development.

“Mora doesn’t have to look like that,” she said. “If you decide that you don’t want to let it happen, it won’t... It’s good to see so many people interested in an issue to protect our way of life in Mora County.”

She said the government often feels pressure from the oil and gas industry and that the industry will often threaten to sue.

“We have to educate landowners. They’re only getting one side of the story. I’ll bet hundreds have already received notices (from KHL),” she said. “Don’t be afraid of oil and gas. They have billions in profits, but we have the numbers. We live in a democracy.”

Frederick suggested a kind of “unionization” in dealing with oil and gas companies.

“They’ll negotiate with people individually and hope you don’t talk to anyone else. Then you’ll find someone got double what you did,” he said. “Avoid secret deals. Communicate with your neighbors.”

Not everyone was against oil and gas drilling. Stan Harper, who has a ranch in Mora County as well as Texas, said outside the meeting that the forum shouldn’t have taken a harsh tone against energy development. He said he has oil and gas drilling on his ranch in Texas and that he made sure the the companies compensated him well, but he said that requires a lawyer’s help.

KHL owner Knute H. Lee Jr. held a barbecue earlier this year for landowners at the Ocat community center to talk about his offer to buy subsurface rights in that area. In February, he told the Optic that his company researches records to determine the owners of mineral rights, contacts them and attempts to get their permission to move forward, usually in the form of leases.

He said oil and gas drilling would be an economic benefit to the area and that such activity would be “minimally intrusive.”

Lee didn’t return a message for comment left on Wednesday.