The Sandoval County Commission appears to have given in to overwhelming grass-roots opposition in its decision to drop an oil and gas ordinance, at least for now.
In a surprise move, the commission voted 4-1 to reject the proposed ordinance, opposed by many community and environmental groups.
An overflow crowd packed the commission’s 112-seat chamber on Thursday night, spilling into the building lobby and bogging down the meeting for hours as opponents lined up to testify against the measure. Such heated opposition apparently swayed some commissioners who previously supported the legislation, according to both backers and opponents.
“There were just so many people lined up to comment, the vast majority of them against the ordinance,” said Miya King Flaherty, public lands fellow with the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter. “That included reserved seating for pueblo governors, who strongly objected to the county’s lack of consultation with them on the ordinance. The commissioners were really called out at the meeting.”
New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said commissioners caved to the opposition.
“The commission chose to crater to some pretty unreasonable demands from groups that want to eliminate oil and gas development in New Mexico,” McEntyre said. “Environmental groups have succeeded in stonewalling the process.”
The proposed legislation would have regulated oil and gas activities on unincorporated land in the county for the first time, potentially speeding the approval process for new industry activities in southeastern areas of Sandoval County that operators have generally ignored until now. But opponents criticized the ordinance’s lack of any special protections against damage to water, air and land, as well as limits against public input on future industry development.
Loud overflow crowds had showed up at previous meetings since the summer. Until now, however, commissioners had remained unswayed, voting 4-1 in September to move forward with a final vote on an initial draft of the ordinance written by the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
And in November, they voted 4-1 to move forward with a couple of amendments to the original draft that would have required closer scrutiny, with public notice and hearings when any company applied to operate in densely populated zones of the county.
But on Friday, only one commissioner, Chairman David Chapman, continued to support the legislation. All others rejected both the initial planning and zoning proposal, as well as the amendments approved in November, taking many off guard.
“I was totally surprised,” Flaherty said. “We’ve had hundreds of people in overflow crowds at past meetings, and we led major phone call, email and letter campaigns. But throughout it all, until now the commission had remained steadfast about pushing forward with the ordinance.”
Commissioner David Heil, who had proposed the amendments approved in November, ended up voting against his own proposals. During the commission meeting, Heil said he has become more concerned since November about potential effects of industry activity on local water supplies, according to the Rio Rancho Observer.
“When I first proposed these amendments, I was thinking I was helping to solve a problem,” Heil said. “But since then I have done considerable learning about the aquifer and the Rio Grande rift, etc. … so at this point, I think I’m going to have to vote ‘no.’ ”
Chapman said he was disappointed that fellow commissioners may have been influenced by the crowd of opponents.
“The room was overwhelmingly filled with environmentalists that we’ll never satisfy because they want to shut the industry down,” Chapman said. “The whole intent all along has been to craft an ordinance to provide a layer of local accountability and regulation that doesn’t exist for an industry that has already been operating here for decades.”
Oil and gas activity has been widespread for decades in the northwestern part of the county, which includes part of the prolific San Juan Basin. The county ordinance would have regulated new activities in more populous zones in the southeast, where little activity has taken place.
With the current ordinance proposals voted down, commissioners agreed on Friday to consider sending the legislation back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a rewrite when that commission meets in January. Opponents see that as an opportunity to push for more environmental protections, but some commissioners may balk at starting over so soon.
Commissioner Jay Block said he’d rather wait for the results of a forthcoming New Mexico Tech study that will assess potential oil and natural gas resources in the county and map aquifer distribution and depth to understand the effects of modern drilling on groundwater. The commission paid the university $62,000 for the study, which is due to be completed in mid-2018.
“With the whole thing dead for now, I’d rather not do anything until we get that study,” Block said. “Let’s let the dust settle until we see what the study says and then figure out what to do.”