Valencia County to reconsider opening door to oil, gas development - Albuquerque Journal

Valencia County to reconsider opening door to oil, gas development

Environmental and community organizations say they were blindsided by the Valencia County Commission’s approval of a new “natural resource overlay zone” that could open the doors to local oil and gas development.

Jospeh Bizzell

The ordinance allows developers to apply for exploratory surface and subsurface mineral development in the county without changing existing zoning on targeted properties.

The five-member commission approved the ordinance in a 3-1 vote on May 3 with one commissioner absent and virtually no public input. That’s because the commission published just one legal advertisement regarding the ordinance on April 15 in the Albuquerque Journal, with no other publicity offered, according to local community activists.

Commission rules mandate that public notice be published twice over two consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation before placing an ordinance on the agenda. That didn’t happen, and now the commission is expected to revisit the issue at its biweekly meeting Wednesday.

Commissioners could be asked to repeal the ordinance to comply with the two-notification rule before reintroducing it again at a forthcoming meeting, said Commissioner Joseph Bizzell, who sponsored the original overlay zone initiative.

Bizzell blamed the mishap on County Attorney Dave Pato.

“The attorney messed up and I told him afterwards to do it right,” Bizzell told the Journal. “… We’re going to open it back up and make sure that everybody has the ability to come in and speak their mind.”

Local activists said they learned about the ordinance after it was approved, and now they’re worried that it’s specifically aimed at opening the doors to oil and gas exploration in Valencia County. That’s because long-time oilman Harvey E. Yates Jr. attended the May 3 commission meeting to support the ordinance, raising concerns about his interest in local hydrocarbon development.

Yates has since confirmed to the Journal that he is committed to exploring for oil and gas in the county and did, to some extent, assist the county in developing the ordinance.

“We’re super concerned that it could open up the possibility for fracking in our community,” said Ann McCartney, a member of advocacy group Valencia Water Watchers.

McCartney said members of her organization will attend Wednesday’s meeting to seek repeal of the ordinance and speak out against it being brought back at a future meeting.

“We want this to be repealed, and we’ll rally community support if they bring it back,” McCartney said. “We anticipate they probably will, because three commissioners have already supported it.”

Environmental organizations are watching closely. The Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter is encouraging its members to attend the commission meeting.

“We have 35,000 members and supporters around the state,” Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman told the Journal. “Our people will show up.”

Overlay zone

Bizzell said he’s been working on the overlay ordinance for about a year, largely because of his interest in retrieving brackish water from underground wells on Valencia County’s West Mesa that could be cleaned up for community use.

“The West Mesa is one of the largest brackish aquifers,” Bizzell said. “It’s unusable water, but there’s desalinization plants that could clean up that water.”

The county could pipe the processed water to municipalities like Los Lunas and Belen, or even Isleta Pueblo and Albuquerque, Bizzell said.

Such projects can already be done without the newly approved overlay zone, but the ordinance speeds the application and approval process by avoiding the need for zoning changes. Under the ordinance, a developer could apply for surface or subsurface mineral development without changing current land-use zoning so that surface-based residential, commercial or industrial activities continue uninterrupted.

“This is just a stepping stone that allows people a process to be able to use their property and go into a natural resource, whether its gravel, brackish water or oil and gas,” Bizzell said.

Developers must still apply to the county for an overlay permit through a public process to show that a project is consistent with county rules and regulations to protect community health, safety and welfare. That process would be open to public comment through a hearing at the county’s planning and zoning commission, and then a second hearing and final vote by the commission.

The ordinance excludes mineral overlay permitting on any land within the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, defined as the county’s “greenbelt.” And, if an overlay zone is approved, the permitted project must take place within 24 months, or the property reverts to its original zoning, Bizzell said.

Such county overlay zoning already exists for solar and greenhouse development. But unlike those ordinances, the natural resource overlay zone contains specific guidelines that would require the county planning and zoning commission to assess only health, safety and general welfare concerns that are directly related to a proposed location, and not base any potential rejection on generic or speculative impacts. The evaluation would also consider a project’s economic development, job creation and tax benefits.

Neither the solar nor greenhouse overlay zone ordinances contain such directives.

Environmental pushback

If the ordinance is reintroduced following two-notification compliance, environmental organizations will likely intervene, said Tom Solomon of Albuquerque-based 350 New Mexico.

In 2017, that group and others mounted stiff resistance in Sandoval County to a proposed ordinance for developers to pursue oil and gas activities there. Hundreds of activists packed commission meetings in opposition, helping to defeat the measure.

“If there’s potential for another drilling and fracking site to crop up like the one we fought in Sandoval County, then we would get involved,” Solomon told the Journal. “It’s too early to jump to conclusions. But Yates is the head of one the state’s biggest oil interests, and given his involvement, we’re concerned, as are other environmental organizations.”

Mary Feldblum of Earthwork’s Oil and Gas Accountability Project called the lack of public information before the County Commission’s May 3 meeting “frightening.”

“Just to say ‘we’re gonna drill’ without informing the community and discussing all the safety concerns and impacts with the pubic, that’s a problem,” Feldblum said. “People were really caught by surprise.”

Bizzell said he’s committed to transparency.

“I just want to make sure that everybody has a voice,” Bizzell said. “Whether you’re for or against it, please come and give public comment.”

None of the other four country commissioners responded to repeated Journal requests for comment.

Valencia County News-Bulletin Assistant Editor Julia M. Dendinger contributed to this report.

If you go

The Valencia County Commission meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the county administration office, 444 Luna Ave. in Los Lunas.



Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of members and supporters the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter has in New Mexico. The correct number is 35,000. The story has been updated.

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