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Mora County bans oil, gas drilling

SANTA FE, N.M. — Mora County has sent notice that the petroleum industry is not welcome, becoming the first county in the nation to ban oil and gas drilling within its boundaries.

On Monday, the county commission passed a Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government ordinance, restricting the rights of corporations and establishing a local Bill of Rights that gives the county full autonomy to protect its natural resources.

“We’re here as a county commission to protect the public welfare and the environment of our community, and I think the ordinance does that,” said John Olivas, commission chairman. “Water is the most precious resource we have, and water protection and the right to clean air is definitely something we were targeting.”

The ordinance states in part: “We believe that industrial use of water supplies in this county placing the control of water in the hands of a corporate few, rather than the county would constitute abuse and usurpation; and that we are therefore duty bound to oppose such abuse and usurpation. That same duty requires us to recognize that two centuries’ worth of governmental conferral of constitutional powers upon corporations has deprived people of the authority to govern their own communities, and requires us to take affirmative steps to remedy that usurpation of governing power … .”

But others don’t see the commission’s action as being so noble.

Karin Foster, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, said such an ordinance will only hurt New Mexico.

“The obvious concern is that other county commissions around the state and country can pick up on this,” she said. “It’s really sad that the first county in (the) country is in the state of New Mexico where we’re so dependent on oil and gas. They should know better.”

Foster said $653 million was generated through oil and gas production on state trust lands in New Mexico during fiscal year 2012, about $500 million of which supports public schools. Other beneficiaries include universities, hospitals and penitentiaries.

She also pointed out that revenues from trust lands are used to retire bonds issued by the Interstate Stream Commission and fund irrigation projects.

“It’s really interesting that Mora County wants to protect water, yet they are taking money away from Interstate Stream Commission and the Office of the State Engineer,” she said.

Foster, who also serves as attorney for the IPA, said she doesn’t see how the ordinance could stand up to legal challenges.

“I don’t know if attorneys actually wrote it; it’s extremely unconstitutional,” she said. “The person that wrote it doesn’t understand constitutional law, doesn’t understand New Mexico law and doesn’t understand the importance of state trust land to New Mexico and education.”

The ordinance was drafted with the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, public-interest law firm that has worked with more than 150 mostly East Coast communities in revising local laws.

No one with the law firm returned phone calls from the Journal this week, but a press release posted on its website celebrates the Mora commission’s vote, saying it represents a rejection of laws that elevate corporate rights over community rights.

“This vote is a clear expression of the rights guaranteed in the New Mexico Constitution which declares that all governing authority is derived from the people,” the firm’s executive director, Thomas Linzey, said. “With this vote, Mora is joining a growing people’s movement for community and nature’s rights.”

The firm also assisted the city of Las Vegas, N.M., in drafting a similar ordinance passed by the city council last year. However, Mayor Alfonso Ortiz has refused to sign it, saying that it is unconstitutional.

The Mora County ordinance states the residents of Mora County have an inherent right to govern their own community, citing the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the New Mexico Constitution and the Mora County Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

The ordinance also calls for the state Legislature to amend the state’s constitution to explicitly secure a community right to local self-government, elevate community rights above corporate property rights and recognize the rights of nature.

Commissioner Paula Garcia cast the lone vote against the ordinance, which passed 2-1.

Garcia said she shares the same values as her colleagues about putting protections in place for land and water in Mora County, but she had concerns over some aspects of the ordinance.

“I was concerned the ordinance was not the best strategy we could put in place to protect ourselves,” she said. “It’s very experimental in that it has a lot of provisions in there that haven’t been tested. Most of the attorneys I’ve talked to said this is not likely to be upheld in court.”

Specifically, Garcia said her concerns were that the ordinance gives people sovereign rights, gives rights to nature, strips corporations of personhood, and challenges the provision that state and federal laws trumps local law.

“I think those merits need to be debated,” she said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I want to put in place protections that have a fighting chance.”

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