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Small village ‘hip to what’s going on’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Mora County’s quixotic ban on fracking was overturned by a federal judge, but former Mora County Commissioner John Olivas still sees it as a success story.

The county’s local ordinance to keep drillers from extracting oil and gas using pressurized liquid was the first of its kind in the U.S. And according to Olivas, a Mora County commissioner from 2010-14 who believes he lost his re-election bid because of the controversial 2013 ban, it set the tone for cities and states throughout the country to follow its lead. States like Maryland and New York, and other smaller jurisdictions have since imposed fracking prohibitions.

“There’s so many communities that are fearful of big money,” Olivas said, calling the saga of the Mora County ban a “David and Goliath” tale.

“Here we were a small community in Northern New Mexico that stood up to industry. I put a target on my chest, industry was coming after me. They sued us twice and we had our day in court.”

The story that brought the small county of about 4,500 people national recognition is back in the spotlight through a new local documentary, which includes interviews with people like Olivas, who led the charge. The movie began screenings a month ago and will be shown this week in Taos.

About an hour long, “Drilling Mora County” is Taos filmmaker David Luis Leal Cortez’s first feature film. He began traveling to Mora about five years ago to shoot interviews with locals, public officials, activists and members of the county’s pro bono legal team.

In early 2017, he received a grant from the Max and Anna Levinson Foundation that allowed him to put the documentary together.

“I had ambitions to make a film about it, because nobody else was,” said Cortez. “I also felt it was important, even though it leans toward the people who supported it, it was important to tell the complete story because nobody really had.”

Back in 2007, the state began leasing county land for 25 cents an acre to oil and gas corporations. Spearheaded by Olivas with help from the Community Environmental Defense Fund in Pennsylvania, the County Commission voted 2-1 to pre-emptively ban fracking in Mora in April 2013, citing environmental concerns, and damage it could cause to locals and land.

The ordinance’s legal tack was unusual in several respects and was from the beginning expected to face difficulty in the courts. It called for an outright fracking ban instead of restrictions on where and how drilling could take place, which is what Santa Fe County had imposed when faced with a Texas company’s fracking plans years before.

The Mora County law also established a bill of rights aimed at affirming the county’s right to local autonomy and self-governance, maintained that any drilling permits issued by either the federal or state governments would be considered invalid and challenged corporate rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The county was sued in 2014, with the plaintiffs including Royal Dutch Shell affiliate Shell Western E&P, over the legality of the ban and its effect on the land leases’ values. In early 2015, a federal judge sided with the corporation.

The Albuquerque judge who struck down the ordinance wrote, “Historically, a county cannot enact or supersede federal law. The ordinance thus goes beyond Mora County’s historical lawmaking just to deprive a corporation of their rights.”

Olivas said a temporary ban now exists, which isn’t being litigated because the infrastructure for extracting in Mora County still doesn’t exist. But with inexpensive leases, companies can hold on to the land and wait until the opportunity presents itself. “In Mora, it’ll be one of those resources they’ll come after later on,” he said.

Cortez mentioned that a lot of the information about the ban on a national scale didn’t follow how it was litigated and overturned. He wanted to educate viewers on the history of the case, explain the ordinance in a non-partisan way as best he could and explain the legal process – how and why Mora was sued and how the officials knew they would be sued.

Cortez described Mora as being at the forefront of a community rights movement. He compared the ban to Mora County’s recent decision to sue pharmaceutical companies over their role in the nationwide opioid crisis, something the state’s Attorney General’s office did shortly after.

“It’s weird, it’s like a county with 5,000 people. They don’t even have a movie theater. They’re this small village and yet they’re hip to what’s going on.”

He added that he attempted to interview those who opposed the ban, including current Commission Chairman Paula Garcia, but no one from that side agreed to go on camera. Instead, he used clips from news sites like PBS and Al Jazeera to show all sides. To break up the interviews, he also included parts of the 1988 movie “The Milagro Beanfield War” about rural residents of northern New Mexico fighting big business and politicians for water rights.

“It had all the New Mexican characteristics and qualities that we couldn’t re-enact, but more or less gave you the feeling, or similar feeling, to what they were fighting against, which is corporations and the little guy,” Cortez said of using Robert Redford’s theatrical movie, based on the novel of the same name by New Mexico resident John Nichols.

Now, Cortez is seeking funding get wider distributions for his film, modify it with clearer images and get proper permissions for all of the clips. Ticket revenue for screenings like the upcoming one in Taos will go toward that goal.

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