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Mora law cannot stand

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By Optic Editorial Board

Mora County has drawn both praise and criticism for becoming the first county in the nation to permanently ban oil and gas drilling.

Supporters of the move hail Mora County as a leader, and the two commissioners who voted in favor of the ordinance last week as heroic for being willing to stand up to oil and gas corporations, which have seemingly endless resources. They argue that the current legal framework that exists does little to protect communities and their residents from the dangers of drilling and fracking. And they vilify anyone with a contrary view as being in bed with the oil and gas industry.

The unfortunate truth is that Commission Chairman John P. Olivas and Vice Chairman Alfonso J. Griego, who voted for the Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance, did little to advance their cause. Their stunt may have attracted a few headlines, but in the process they have thrown away the moral high ground on the critically important issue of oil and gas drilling and how best to protect the county’s precious water and the environment.

The fact that Mora County — with its financially strapped government that struggles even to afford an attorney — is the first county in the nation to adopt an ordinance like this speaks volumes.

We take no issue with the county’s desire to protect its water and other natural resources. That’s a noble goal. But the ordinance attempts to nullify constitutional rights that have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court time and time again.

It attempts to strip corporations that violate the ordinance or that are trying to engage in activities prohibited by the ordinance of “the rights of persons afforded by the United States and New Mexico Constitutions”; it tries to strip those same corporations of rights afforded to them under the commerce and contract clauses of the U.S. and state constitutions; and it states that those same corporations and individuals can’t enforce state or federal preemptive law, the doctrine that federal and state laws trump municipal laws when there is a conflict.

The U.S. and state constitutions aren’t trivial documents that can be cast aside at will just because they are inconvenient. The Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund helped draft the Mora County ordinance, and its attempt at nullification of well established constitutional law is misguided and irresponsible.

Rather than rolling up their sleeves and putting in the hard work necessary to draft an ordinance that protects the land and citizenry, Olivas and Griego opted to approve a manifesto that has no chance of being upheld in court. They let themselves and their county be used as pawns, and they violated their oaths to uphold the state and federal constitutions.

Sadly, it will likely be the people of Mora County who are saddled with the consequences of the vote, protracted litigation and escalating legal bills. CELDF has promised to defend the county, but we fear that likely means the organization will be pushing its own agenda, not looking at the best interest of the Mora County citizenry. And when the interests of the county and CELDF diverge, then what?

This charade has gone on long enough. District Attorney Richard Flores, Sen. Pete Campos, Reps. Tomás Salazar and Nick Salazar, we urge one of you to seek an Attorney General opinion on this matter as soon as possible. And we urge the oil and gas industry to take this ordinance to court.

This attack on our constitutions cannot stand.