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Showdown looms on oil and gas ordinance

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The Sandoval County Commission could face a raucous crowd Thursday when it votes on whether to adopt a new oil and gas ordinance.

The ordinance would regulate oil and gas activities on unincorporated land in the county, one of New Mexico’s most expansive counties with vast unpopulated areas, sparsely populated rural areas and populated urban zones such as Rio Rancho.

Oil and gas companies have long operated in northwestern areas of the county that straddle the San Juan Basin but have not shown interest in the county’s more heavily populated southeastern areas.

That all changed in 2015, when a now-bankrupt Oklahoma company, SandRidge Energy Inc., applied with the county to drill exploratory wells just west of the Rio Rancho Estates Community District several miles outside Rio Rancho’s city limits. SandRidge requested a “special use” permit, because the county did not have an ordinance regulating such activities. Then the county decided to draw up an ordinance to regulate such activities instead of relying on its more general “special use” process.

The decision has since ballooned into a full-on fight with community groups and environmental organizations, which say the proposed ordinance contains no meaningful protections against potential damage to water, air or land or against noise pollution, nor does it provide adequate safety measures to protect people in case of accidents.

In effect, the ordinance would create “permissive use” zones for oil and gas activities, allowing companies to apply for permits, which would have to be processed within 10 days with no public notice or hearings necessary. Applicants, however, would have to meet certain requirements and show proof they have obtained all legal permits from the state’s Oil Conservation Division and from any federal entities with jurisdiction over industry activities, thus leaving state and federal officials in charge of environmental and other regulatory issues.

That’s deliberate to defer such regulation to governing authorities who have expertise and who are already charged with monitoring the industry, said County Commission Chairman Don Chapman.

“We can’t usurp the authority of other bodies that regulate the industry,” he said. “… We want to strike a balance, but we can’t satisfy everybody, because some folks want us to restrict industry from doing things that other regulatory bodies deal with. We can’t create our own Environmental Protection Agency here with a whole new level of bureaucracy.”

The proposed ordinance also would ban drilling within 750 feet of homes, schools, churches and cemeteries. And it would require operators to use “best practices” in everything they do, including water protection, as defined by the American Petroleum Institute, said Daniel Fine, associate director of New Mexico Tech’s Center for Energy Policy, which provided technical assistance to Sandoval County on the proposed ordinance. Sandoval County would be the first in the nation to enforce the API’s guidelines in a political jurisdiction, he said.

The applicant also would have to show an emergency plan, road access details, a site plan and details such as color of well, types of lighting and required fencing.

Once the company completed all of the requirements, the county would have 10 days to approve the project, and no public hearings would be necessary.

That may change.

The five-member commission voted 4-1 in September to proceed to a final vote. But one supporter, Commissioner David Heil, plans to introduce two amendments Thursday, including one that would turn more densely populated zones into “conditional use” areas that would require public notice and a hearing before a green light.

“I suspect that without amendments, we won’t have the three votes needed to pass this ordinance,” Heil said.

Litigation fears

The commission, which has spent two years working on the ordinance, wants to avoid the type of litigation that Mora County in northern New Mexico faced after it banned all “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, activities in 2013. In 2015, a federal court struck down Mora’s ordinance, the first in the nation in which a county tried to ban fracking outright.

The Mora dispute was part of a nationwide movement to slow or stop development in places where the modern techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling had opened up new areas for industry activity. That led to restrictive ordinances in some places, rather than outright bans.

That includes Santa Fe and San Miguel counties, both of which approved far stricter ordinances in recent years than what Sandoval County is considering.

Despite the ruling against Mora, activists say communities can still impose certain controls on things state and federal authorities either don’t regulate or don’t enforce.

“The county does have certain rights to protect citizens, and it’s their sworn duty to do so,” said Elaine Cimino of Common Ground Rising, a grass-roots group in the Rio Rancho Estates district.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned about water, said Miya King Flaherty, public lands fellow with the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.

“Oil and gas activities could threaten the underground aquifers that nearly 1 million people depend on in both Sandoval and Bernalillo counties,” Flaherty said.

There’s no known industry interest in Bernalillo County, which has no ordinance regulating oil and gas activity. But it uses the same subsurface water resources as Sandoval, meaning operations there could affect both counties, Flaherty said.

Common Ground Rising expects Thursday’s meeting to draw an overflow crowd of residents and environmental groups.