Dunn fails to flip vote on gas wells

December 5, 2018

At a tense meeting Tuesday afternoon, the three-member state Oil Conservation Commission gave formal approval to an order allowing Texas-based Hilcorp Energy Co. to increase the density of natural gas wells in New Mexico’s northwest corner.

The commission had approved the oil and gas company’s request in November, but the special meeting, held in Santa Fe, drew a last-ditch effort on the part of both a citizens’ group and the State Land Office to either stay the decision or include in the order evidence of what they saw as procedural error.

Both efforts failed.

Outgoing Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a vocal opponent of Hilcorp’s application to double the number of wells allowed in the San Juan Basin’s Blanco-Mesaverde gas pool, appointed himself to serve as the third commission member after ousting his previous appointee in response to the commission’s unanimous opinion on the case in November.

From the front of the commission’s hearing room, Dunn accused his two counterparts, seated beside him, of rushing through an approval at the expense of land owners and the environment.

“This was a rush deal from a political standpoint, on Hilcorp’s part, so this doesn’t enter the next administration,” he said. “That’s what it looks like.”

Commissioners Heather Riley and Robert Balch pushed back on Dunn’s claim.

“I’m not a political person,” said Balch, director of New Mexico Tech’s Petroleum Recovery Research Center. “… I’m a scientist. I use my judgment. If you tell me how to vote, the first thing I will do is resign. Since I’m sitting here today, I haven’t resigned because no one has told me how to vote.”

The move allows oil and gas outfits to double the number of wells in operation, either by boring new holes or accessing the gas pool through existing ones.

Previously, four wells were allowed per 320-acre tract of the Blanco-Mesaverde. The signed order allows eight.

Oil and gas advocates have hailed the move as a win for economic development in a historically poor corner of the state.

Though Dunn said he expected the outcome, Don Schreiber, a rancher and environmentalist who oversees 2,000 acres of federally permitted grazing land near Farmington, expressed a sense of renewed shock.

“It’s always surprising for me when people are able to set aside vital environmental concerns that concern their children and grandchildren,” he said. “That always is surprising and disappointing for me. Today is no exception.”

Schreiber has decried the Hilcorp application as nearly a death knell for an already densely drilled region, which NASA scientists have deemed a hot spot for emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. A cloud of methane the size of Delaware hangs over the region, and experts have linked it, at least in part, to emissions from nearby natural gas storage tanks, pipelines and wells.

Dunn and an attorney for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an activist group that has fought the move by Hilcorp, both said they plan to appeal the decision within a 20-day deadline. The commission then will have 10 days to respond.

Hilcorp’s application has drawn intense scrutiny statewide – especially from the slate of newly elected or re-elected state Democratic officials.

In advance of the November hearing in which the commission voted to approve Hilcorp’s request, a slew of officials — U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, and a coalition of Democratic state senators and representatives — all sent letters to the commission imploring the panel to stay the decision, citing public-notification issues and environmental concerns.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Hector Balderas, also a Democrat, vowed to keep close watch on the case and follow up on potential violations of the Open Meetings Act.

At the Nov. 19 hearing, State Land Office attorney Andrea Antillon argued she and her colleagues were not alerted to the meeting until Nov. 13. State law requires at least seven days of advance notice.

She said Dunn denied a request for notice to be waived, but the hearing went forward anyway.

“The late notification regarding the hearing meant that we could not file a pre-hearing notice to present witnesses,” she said in an email statement this past week.

Dunn and Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, a lawyer representing a group called the San Juan Citizens Alliance, also expressed frustration that commissioners failed to hear evidence of the potential above-ground environmental implications of increased drilling.

Schlenker-Goodrich called the move a “shell game” in which commissioners passed the buck down the line for the next regulatory body to deal with.

He said he’s hoping things change in the new year.

“For far too long, the oil and gas industry has had carte blanche authority to do what it wants in terms of oil and gas drilling,” he said. “And I think come January there’s a new day in New Mexico.”

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