LOS LUNAS — Fear of groundwater contamination. Concern over possible emission of methane and other greenhouse gases. Criticism over a lack of public notice.
Those were the objections raised Wednesday night by dozens of residents and activists who packed the Valencia County Commission chambers to protest an initiative that could lead to local oil and gas development.
After an hour of listening to opponents vent, commissioners agreed to revisit an earlier vote and hold a public hearing in July to discuss a new “natural resource overlay zone” that they approved in early May in a 3-1 vote, with one commissioner absent and virtually no public input.
The ordinance would allow developers to apply for surface and subsurface mineral exploration on targeted properties in the county without changing existing zoning on those lands. Commissioners said it could allow investors to develop the county’s natural resources, generating more economic development and jobs, while simultaneously protecting existing zoning on lands for residential, commercial and industrial purposes.
Given the overflow crowd at Wednesday’s meeting, the commission said it will announce a larger, alternative venue to host the July public hearing.
The ordinance sponsor, Commissioner Joseph Bizzell, has said he was initially inspired to pursue the initiative based on his interest in pumping brackish water from underground wells on Valencia County’s West Mesa that could be cleaned up for community use.
But opponents believe the new overlay zone will lead directly to oil and gas operations. That’s largely because of involvement by longtime oilman Harvey E. Yates, who supported creation and approval of the ordinance to help facilitate exploratory drilling for hydrocarbons in Valencia County by his Albuquerque-based oil and gas company, Jalapeño Corp.
About two dozen speakers directly addressed the commission in public comment on Wednesday.
Local activists delivered opposition petitions to commissioners signed by 25 community and environmental organizations.
“We don’t want oil and gas wells in our county damaging our aquifer and emitting methane and other greenhouse gasses,” said Valencia Water Watchers co-founder Ann McCartney, reading from a petition to commissioners. “… This needs to be a county for all the people, not the rich oil and gas producers, like Harvey E. Yates.”
Most speakers warned that drilling into the Albuquerque Basin — an undeveloped zone potentially rich in hydrocarbons — is particularly concerning, because the subsurface layers of rock and sediment are filled with fault lines that could become conduits for chemicals from oil and gas operations to contaminate the basin’s fresh-water aquifer.
Under those conditions, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would be especially dangerous, said Los Lunas resident William Maxwell, who said he worked in the energy industry for 30 years, including experience in oil and gas operations.
“I’m not against oil and gas,” Maxwell told commissioners. “But in this incidence in Valencia County, there could be serious risk of ground water contamination.”
Many speakers expressed anger and frustration about the lack of publicity regarding the ordinance before the commission approved it last month.
The county published just one legal advertisement about the initiative in April in the Albuquerque Journal, violating its own rules that mandate public notice appear twice over two consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation before placing an ordinance on the commission agenda.
“Many of us showed up here tonight on a moment’s notice,” local resident Elisabeth Dicharry told commissioners. “I only just found out about this.”
Republishing the ordinance
The notification mishap led to the ordinance being placed back on the commission agenda at the Wednesday meeting to allow commissioners to consider alternatives to rectify the problem, which County Attorney Dave Pato said could open the door to legal challenges when developers apply for an overlay-zone permit.
Opponents implored the commission to simply repeal the ordinance and then table it.
But commissioners instead voted 4-1 to repeal it to comply with the two-notification mandate, and then reintroduce it at a special public hearing now planned for July 14.
The lone opposing vote came from Commissioner David A. Hyder, who also voted against the ordinance in May.
Commission Chair Gerard Saiz and fellow Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon — who both supported the ordinance in May — said the large turnout by opponents showed clear need for more public discussion going forward.
Both said they voted for the ordinance because it could facilitate natural resource development without changing existing zoning, providing protection for current land uses. Without that, developers could still apply for county permits for mineral operations, but then zoning on targeted properties could be permanently altered.
“My vote was done in good faith, and I still think that extra level of protection and safeguards would benefit Valencia County,” Saiz said. “… (But) based on the public comment tonight, we need the public to get more involved to speak out on it.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the work experience of Los Lunas resident William Maxwell. Maxwell worked in the energy industry for 30 years, including experience in oil and gas operations. The story has been updated.