Tug of War - Drilling benefits debated at hearing

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By Martin Salazar

On one side were area ranchers, business owners and even county officials from other parts of the state urging San Miguel County not to slam the door on an industry that could bring much-needed jobs to the area and bolster the economy.

On the other side were school children, environmentalists and longtime area residents urging the county not to risk the area’s scarce water supply and way of life for short-term economic gain.

And as each side and their purported experts cited contradictory study after contradictory study on the risks and benefits of oil and gas drilling, particularly fracking, about the only thing they agreed on was that they wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the five San Miguel County commissioners who will ultimately decide what kind of oil and gas regulatory ordinance gets enacted.

Emotions ran high at Thursday’s public hearing on the issue as more than a hundred people packed into the San Miguel County Commission chambers, the crowd spilling out into adjacent corridors.

Among those present were several school children carrying signs with messages like “Don’t frack our future” and “Don’t frack our lives.”

And despite the fact that the hearing ran from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — with a one-and-a-half hour break so that the commission could go behind closed doors to discuss threatened litigation on the issue — not everyone who wanted to speak got the opportunity. Commissioners promised to hold another hearing to ensure that all had their say before a decision is made.

Two-year moratorium
Commission Chairman Nicolas Leger opened the hearing by reiterating that no decision on oil and gas drilling in San Miguel County has been made.

The county has had a moratorium on it for two years, and Leger pledged that the county would continue that moratorium until it has an ordinance in place that regulates it.

Present at the hearing was Robert H. Freilich, the Los Angeles attorney hired by the county to help draft the ordinance. Freilich, who has drafted oil and gas ordinances across the country, said he would make himself available to meet with groups on both sides of the issue.

“To me, this is one of the most critical issues in America,” Freilich said.

He also stressed that while he will present alternatives and pros and cons to the commission, ultimately it will be commissioners who decide what ordinance gets enacted.

Claim fracking is safe
Also at Thursday’s hearing, specifics began to emerge about the interest of the oil and gas industry in San Miguel County.

Gregory P. Miller, a Socorro-based environmental consultant hired by a Conchas area ranch contemplating allowing drilling, told the commission that the oil and gas industry is interested in the southeastern portion of the county, specifically the Trementina sub-basin of the Tucumcari basin.

Miller, who was retained by the Clabber Hill Ranch, argued that the oil and gas industry is already well regulated and that fracking is safe.

He said that while there are currently no active oil and gas wells in San Miguel County, drilling has occurred here in the past. He questioned why there weren’t problems with water contamination around those old drill sites if drilling is so dangerous.

Abby Quinn, whose family owns the Clabber Hill Ranch in Conchas Dam, said the ranch was forced to reduce its cattle by 25 percent because of the drought.

“We’re hanging on by our fingertips,” she said.

Her husband, Brian Quinn, said the ranch has a lease with Shell Oil Company. He said the ranch has lost money because of the moratorium the county has in place. He said Shell threatened to pull out of the agreement because of the moratorium, forcing the ranch to renegotiate the lease.

As for the draft ordinance being circulated by the county, Brian Quinn said that as written, it would effectively ban all drilling at the ranch because of the setback requirements it would establish.

County officials in recent months have stressed that the draft ordinance is merely a starting point for the discussion.

Commissioner Ron Ortega questioned where the water would come from for drilling and fracking at the ranch.

Quinn responded that the lease agreement the ranch has with Shell prohibits the use of fresh water for drilling. He said there is non-potable water at the ranch, and added that in west Texas, where he lives, oil and gas companies haul in water for drilling.

At the center of the debate on oil and gas drilling in San Miguel County is the practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a controversial process whereby a large amount of pressurized water with chemicals is injected into wells and bores to crack rock and free oil or gas. The county has held several public hearings on its draft ordinance, fielding concerns from many area residents about the potential dangers to the environment.

Concerns raised
Among the concerns being raised is the potential for groundwater contamination and its associated health risks, reports that fracking has been correlated with an increase in earthquakes and concerns about the millions of gallons of water needed in the fracking process.

Those concerns were reiterated at Thursday’s hearing.

Up until last week, proponents of oil and gas drilling who have appeared before the Commission have mostly been limited to members of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. They have appeared before the Commission touting the economic benefits of the oil and gas industry and downplaying any potential dangers of fracking.

But on Thursday, several area business owners and ranchers, along with regular residents of the county, spoke up in favor of drilling.

Susan Tsyitee, who said she had no financial interest in drilling, voiced her concern for the future of the county and its children if the door is slammed on the oil and gas industry.

Alan Franken, with Franken Oil & Distributing Co., asked the commission to develop an ordinance that encourages oil and gas drilling and that protects the environment. He argued that both can be achieved. He said that while there are some risks, the rewards are high.

Children leaving area
“We can, with your help, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” he said.

His brother Jim Franken, president of Franken Construction, agreed.

“There’s a way this could be done to protect the environment and add economic stability to the county,” he said, adding that something needs to be done so that children who grow up here don’t have to leave to get decent jobs.

“Our county is drying up,” he said. “People are leaving. We’re dying here.”

Wayne Sonchar, who operates BTU, said oil and gas drilling here would benefit the entire region.

The Frankens and Sonchar all said that their businesses are suffering, resulting in their having fewer employees today than in years past. They said something needs to be done to turn the county’s economy around.

Lea County Manager Mike Gallagher and Chaves County Commission Chairman Greg Nibert also urged San Miguel County officials to consider the economic benefits of oil and gas drilling. Both cited increased revenues for the county and low unemployment rates there. And contrary to assertions that the industry brings with it a high crime rate, both said that hasn’t been their experience.

The Chaves County Commission even passed a resolution encouraging the San Miguel County Commission to embrace the oil and gas industry.

Among the concerns raised by drilling proponents is that a ban on drilling or implementation of regulations that are so restrictive that they effectively prevent drilling would be a violation of land owners’ constitutionally protected property rights.

Many oppose drilling
While there may have been more people speaking in favor of drilling at Thursday’s hearing than in past meetings, the majority of people attending the hearing appeared to be against drilling.

And many of them are urging the county to forget about trying to regulate it and just ban it entirely.

Leroy Benavidez, who identified himself as a Las Vegas resident said, “Once they do one well, we’re screwed... They can’t guarantee they won’t contaminate the water.”
“If you have an ordinance, what you’re doing is opening the door,” said Romeroville resident Michael Coca. “My advice is to ban fracking.”

Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund told the county his organization would be willing to help develop an ordinance that bans fracking and oil and gas drilling.

He said one of the reasons his organization advocates that type of approach is because once the environmental damage is done it’s impossible to go back and undo it.

He said 140 communities in eight states have already passed community rights ordinances. Those ordinances seek to restrict the rights of corporations, raising constitutional issues.

Jody Stege, a healthcare professional, said any short-term economic benefits that might come with oil and gas drilling can’t buy health. She said the industry’s statements that fracking is safe reminds her of how the tobacco industry denied that smoking posed health hazards.

She asked others in the audience to join her in supporting a ban on fracking in the community.

Mary Lou Griego, a retired educator, gave impassioned remarks about how precious water is in this area and the amount of water fracking takes.

“Please do not sell us out to the oil industry,” she told commissioners.

Ben Gillock, a professor at the United World College, spoke on behalf of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance. He, too, voiced concern about the amount of water needed by the oil and gas industry.

“The effects on water quantity are those of greatest concern to us given the current and expected future condition of our water supply,” he said.

Bob Wessely, who heads the Las Vegas Community Water Board, asked the commission to consider prohibiting the use of county water for oil and gas drilling. He said that even brackish water could prove important for the county, given the emerging technology for cleaning it up and the shortage of water that exists here.

Bernard Schaer, countering arguments that fracking has been occurring for decades, said that while that is true, horizontal fracking has been occurring for only about six years. He said it’s a process still being developed.

Don Hamilton, of Ocate, argued that there’s plenty of evidence about the damage that fracking causes. As for the economic benefits, Hamilton said, the county won’t see a lot of money from it and most of the jobs generated will go to people from out of state.