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Overflow crowd weighs in on Sandoval County oil, gas ordinance

Aleta Paisano-Suazo of Laguna Pueblo asks Sandoval County commissioners to protect the environment during their consideration of the oil and gas ordinance. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Independent Petroleum Association supported the ordinance as written. The association has taken no position on the ordinance.

BERNALILLO – The Sandoval County Commission voted 4-1 to approve an amendment to a proposed oil and gas ordinance early today.

The amendment would impose closer scrutiny with public notice and hearings for any request by companies to conduct activities in densely-populated zones of the county.

That’s a substantial change from the original ordinance, which would have created an administrative process without public notice to approve “permissive use” permits for oil and gas companies to operate in all unincorporated land in the county.

The ordinance must now be rewritten with the amendment, meaning a final version won’t be voted on until January 2018.

The county meeting took place in front of an overflow crowd of about 200 people at the Sandoval County administrative offices.

Public comment on the ordinance lasted until nearly midnight Thursday, pushing the final vote to amend the regulations until early today.

Dozens of speakers lined up to speak for and against the proposed law, which would regulate industry activities for the first time on unincorporated land in the county. That included community activists, environmentalists and representatives of many of the eight pueblos in Sandoval County who spoke in opposition to the ordinance.

Karleen Gonzales holds up a sign during the Sandoval County Commission meeting. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Business leaders, joined by some local residents and university students from New Mexico Tech, also lined up in support, while about 75 people who could not enter the commission’s packed chambers listened by video in the building’s lobby.

Opponents criticized the ordinance’s lack of any special protections against potential damage to water, air and land from future industry activities. Tribal leaders in particular voiced concern about impacts on water resources and the County Commission’s lack of consultation with the tribes before preparing the ordinance for a vote.

“We live in a desert,” Sandia Pueblo Lt. Gov. Lawrence Gutierrez told the five commissioners. “Water quality and quantity is imperative. We’re fighting for every little bit of water we can find in the mid-Rio Grande area, and those issues aren’t being addressed.”

Timothy Menchego, cultural resource coordinator for Santa Ana Pueblo, said the commission is making a decision that affects tribes throughout the county without any serious consultation.

“We want this tabled until data and studies can be provided on the impacts of this ordinance, and then do government-to-government consultations between the county and tribes as sovereign nations.”

On the other side, leaders from the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association,  the Association of Commerce and Industry and Rio Grande Foundation all urged the commission to approve the ordinance as written. Speakers said the commission has been debating and re-working the ordinance for two years and it’s time to put the issue to a vote.

“It’s a fair, reasonable and balanced ordinance that’s been developed, debated and discussed for over two years,” said Steve Jenkins, president and CEO of the Sandoval Economic Alliance. “It’s time to move forward.”

Some New Mexico Tech students as well urged the commission’s approval to provide high-paying employment opportunities to allow more local college graduates to remain in the state.

People gather in the overflow area to watch the Sandoval County Commission consider a new oil and gas ordinance. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Opportunities for college graduates have declined and many of us are forced to leave,” said Tech student Michael Ward. “When we graduate, there’s nothing for us to do here. We don’t want to have to take our knowledge and careers to other places.”

If the original ordinance had been approved by the commission it would have established “permissive use” zones for oil and gas activities where companies could apply for permits to drill wells in all unincorporated land throughout the county. The applications would have been processed within 10 days without public notice or hearings. With the amendment approved early today, those permissive use permits still apply to many unincorporated lands throughout the county. But it would no longer apply to densely-populated zones where companies will now be required to get “conditional use” permits.

If approved in January, the law would leave environmental oversight and monitoring to state and federal authorities, requiring applicants to demonstrate that they’ve achieved all needed permits and licenses from those government entities before receiving a county permit to conduct local activities.

Leaving such oversight to state and federal regulators is deliberate to avoid potential litigation for overstepping the county authority, Commission Chairman Don Chapman told meeting participants.

“It’s taken us two years to get the ordinance to the point where we feel comfortable that it won’t expose us to litigation or step on the toes of other authorities,” Chapman said. “We’ve done our due diligence here.”

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