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Mora County’s hydrocarbon drilling ban draws criticism

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A recent decision by the Mora County Commission to adopt an ordinance that prohibits oil and natural-gas development is drawing criticism.

Mora County Republican Party Chairman Frank Trambley sees the ordinance as an attack on jobs and the oil and gas industry, which provides the state hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year through taxes and royalties.

“It is a dire shame to see such a progressive movement here in our state,” Trambley said in a statement. “Without the ability to explore extraction possibilities, Mora County residents are at a sincere disadvantage compared to other areas of the state.”

Tens of millions of barrels of oil and gas are produced in New Mexico each year. The hotbeds for development are in the southeastern and northwestern corners of the state, but some Mora County residents are concerned that companies might start to look elsewhere as technology improves.

Right now, there are no leases on federal land within the county’s boundaries. There are more than 120 leases on state land, but no active wells.

The State Land Office said the leases that do exist in the sparsely populated county date back to the previous administration and will all be expired in less than two years, unless drilling occurs and the resulting wells become commercially productive.

Following through on a campaign promise, commission Chairman John Olivas said he wanted to take action before drilling came to the county. He said the ordinance is about protecting groundwater and establishing the county’s right to make its own decisions about development.

The ordinance states that any permits or licenses issued by the federal or state government permitting activities that would compromise the county’s rights would be considered invalid. It also puts the county’s rights ahead of any corporate rights.

Olivas said he’s ready for legal challenges that might result.

Olivas and Vice Chairman Alfonso Griego voted in favor of the ordinance. Commissioner Paula Garcia voted against it, saying the county was being put at risk because the measure violated existing laws.

Local bans on drilling and the practice of hydraulic fracturing are being put to the test in other states. Just last week, a New York mid-level appeals court ruled that municipalities in that state can use local zoning laws to ban fracking and that state mining and drilling laws don’t trump the authority of local governments to control land use.

In New Mexico, officials at the federal Bureau of Land Management said the agency is not bound by local ordinances. In general, the agency would consider leasing federal land for development if there was an interest. Environmental assessments would be done, and the public – including county officials – would have a chance to comment and protest if a lease were awarded.

Trambley is urging people to speak out against the ordinance. He described it as maddening to see sweeping bans being made without accurate information about the economic and environmental effects of drilling.

“In our economic climate, we simply cannot afford to needlessly throw the possibility for jobs down the drain,” he said.

Olivas argued that Mora County’s water supplies need to be protected, especially during a drought.

The majority of New Mexico’s 50,000-plus operating wells were drilling using the fracking process. Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations and release oil and natural gas. Despite industry’s assurances about the safety of the process, opponents contend it could cause pollution and deplete water resources.

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