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Tempers flare over drilling

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Ortega ruled out of order for yelling during meeting

It’s no secret that the prospect of oil and gas drilling in San Miguel County is a contentious issue, but those tensions boiled over at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting with some members of the audience demanding a community rights ordinance and outgoing Commissioner Ron Ortega yelling back that what they want just isn’t possible.

“We want you to take this dangerous industry away from our county,” audience member Bernadette Fernandez interjected as commissioners were debating whether to extend the moratorium on oil and gas drilling in San Miguel County by six months or whether to extend it for a longer period.

“We can’t do that, damn it,” an exasperated Ortega yelled, adding that a community rights ordinance would place the county in legal peril.  

The meeting got so heated at that point, that Commission Chairman Nicolas Leger repeatedly told Ortega he was out of order as he attempted to regain control.

In the end, a divided Commission moved forward with adopting a six-month extension to the moratorium, disappointing many in the audience who had requested that the moratorium be extended by one or two years. With the ordinance adopted Tuesday, the county’s temporary ban on oil and gas drilling will run until Jan. 11, 2015. The moratorium has been in place since January of 2010 as the county has struggled to come up with an ordinance that governs oil and gas extraction in the county.

The county is currently considering a draft ordinance that would allow drilling in the eastern part of the county, although drilling proponents have said that the red tape and fees it imposes would discourage the oil and gas industry from coming to San Miguel County. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have told the Commission that the ordinance needs to be even stricter in order to protect the residents of San Miguel County. Some are even calling for a community rights ordinance similar to the one adopted by Mora County last year.

Mora County’s ordinance bans oil and gas drilling outright and attempts to override provisions of the state and federal constitutions as well as rights the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled corporations have. Mora County is facing two federal lawsuits over its community rights ordinance.

The county’s Planning and Zoning board earlier this year reviewed San Miguel County’s draft oil and gas ordinance and recommended that the County Commission extend the moratorium another two years, and County Commissioners Arthur Padilla and Gilbert Sena have advocated following the recommendation.

But Commissioners Leger, Ortega and Marcellino Ortiz have argued that the county has spent years working on the draft ordinance and that it’s time to move forward on it. Leger has also previously raised concerns that a prolonged moratorium could open up the county to a lawsuit from the oil and gas industry.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several people urged the Commission to extend the moratorium another two years, saying that the time is needed for the county to collect baseline air quality and water data so that the oil and gas industry can be held accountable.

“You won’t be able to get baseline testing done in six months,” local activist Lee Einer said. He added that baseline testing is critical because a frequent fallback of the oil and gas industry when accused of contaminating an area is that there’s no proof that the contaminants weren’t there before the drilling started.

“As soon as you pass a regulatory ordinance, the oil and gas industry will be here,” Einer said. He told commissioners that if they had any intention of protecting the water, land and air, a six-months  extension on the moratorium isn’t sufficient.

Ralph Laumbach later echoed Einer’s comments, saying there are many safeguards that need to be in place, including monitoring wells and having trained inspectors.

“We need to be ready to protect ourselves,” he said.

Rock Ulibarri, who defeated Ortega in the Democratic primary, also told commissioners that a six-months extension wouldn’t be sufficient to get everything in place. Ortega’s term ends Dec. 31. Ulibarri is facing no Republican opponent during the November general election.

Padilla and Sena agreed that the six-months extension isn’t long enough.

Later in the meeting, Ortega said he supports monitoring wells and air quality testing. But he said the county has no authority to do those things without an oil and gas ordinance.

“I’m tired of wasting time on this,” he said.

Leger said he believes  the draft ordinance is 90 percent complete. And he agreed with Ortega that the baseline testing can’t begin until the ordinance has been adopted.

“There will be no drilling, as far as I’m concerned, until these baseline studies are completed,” Leger said. “It’s not like if we adopt the ordinance, they’re here drilling the next day.”

Ortiz noted that if the six months isn’t sufficient, the Commission can always approve another extension to the moratorium.

In an attempt to compromise, Padilla motioned for a 12-month extension, and Sena seconded the motion. The motion failed on a 3-2 vote, with Leger, Ortega and Ortiz voting against it.

Leger then made a motion to adopt a six-month extension, and the motion was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Sena and Padilla voting against it.