Drilling rules still up for debate in New Mexico county
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Nov. 17, 2017
BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) — Frustrated tribal leaders won a temporary victory early Friday at a marathon meeting on a much-disputed energy development proposal for a large swath of land bordering New Mexico's largest metropolitan area and numerous Native American communities.
Sandoval County commissioners heard hours of public testimony that stretched passed midnight before adopting amendments. The changes mean the commission will have to consider the new version at a future meeting.
Some critics held protest signs and others raised their fists as a show of solidarity. Energy executives were booed by the crowd while tribal leaders elicited cheers.
During the packed meeting, several tribal leaders testified that they were not consulted. They were joined by environmentalists, activists and residents who voiced concerns about potential environmental effects, arguing that the proposed rules would pave the way for more drilling.
Many asked the commissioners to table the proposal pending further analysis and more discussions with the public and tribal communities.
The push to delay action was also made by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which approved a resolution Thursday in opposition to the proposed ordinance.
Pointing to the overflow crowd, Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo told the commissioners: "To be frank with all of you, congratulations for just about upsetting every group in Sandoval County."
Sandia Pueblo Lt. Gov. Lawrence Gutierrez said his tribe is concerned about water quality and quantity, noting that supplies are uncertain in the arid state. He pointed to the billions of gallons used annually by oil and gas producers elsewhere in New Mexico.
"This ordinance doesn't go far enough," he said.
Supporters highlighted the industry's multibillion-dollar role in New Mexico's economy and the need to fill a current regulatory void for the sprawling county.
In the works for about two years, the ordinance would establish buffer zones and require energy companies to have at least a $5 million insurance policy. The ordinance would not affect state or federal regulations already in place.
Commission Chairman Don Chapman said the ordinance would add an extra layer of protection without usurping state or federal authority. He also said it recognizes that oil and gas operations already exist in the county.
"There's this misconception that what we're going to do here in Sandoval County is pass out tickets for people to come in here and frack. The reality is it's been going on without an ordinance," he said, referring to hydraulic fracturing — a process that boosts production by injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to break open rock formations.
"I really feel like our ordinance moves the county forward in terms of holding the industry accountable and providing a level of protection that currently doesn't exist for the citizens that live here," Chapman said.
The proposed ordinance would ban drilling within 750 feet of homes, schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries and fresh water supplies. It also asks that areas be fenced and that operators provide certificates showing they have safe water use agreements and cleanup plans for when their wells are plugged.
Violations would result in a $300 fine.
While energy companies have operated for decades in areas along the edge of the San Juan Basin, there has been little interest in Sandoval County's southern, more populated reaches.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association generally does not support such local ordinances, but spokesman Robert McEntyre said it appears the county is trying to strike a balance even though current market prices are too low to encourage companies to look beyond the state's traditional hotspots, which include the San Juan Basin to the north and southeastern New Mexico's share of the Permian Basin.
"The idea that we're all of a sudden going to be drilling in someone's neighborhood or backyard is farfetched," he said, adding that the buffers called for by the ordinance would be the most stringent in the state.