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Vocal residents oppose oil well plan

Sandoval County residents packed the atrium of the county administrative building in Bernalillo Thursday to weigh in on a proposed zone change for an exploratory oil well west of the city of Rio Rancho, most them calling for the project to be rejected.

The audience frequently applauded comments against the proposed operation, and greeted those in favor with boos and hisses before the Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission continued the hearing to Jan. 28.

More than 60 people signed up to address SandRidge Energy’s application to change two acres of private land from residential to special use zoning to allow for oil and gas exploration.

rw00_jd_12dec_Well-SiteTwenty-two people spoke before the hearing was continued. Those on the list who did not get to comment will speak first at next month’s meeting, Commission Chairman John Arango said.

As the meeting began, Arango said the hearing on the SandRidge proposal should be split in two, saying the board would like to first consider the zone change request, with a separate hearing should the company move into a production phase.

The Oklahoma-based energy company proposes to drill a well to a depth of 10,500 feet, requiring 15 to 20 days of drilling and production testing, and 283,500 gallons of water to be purchased from the City of Rio Rancho.

A SandRidge representative said the amount of water would approximate the amount to fill 1½ Olympic swimming pools. A closed loop system would extract the waste, with drilling fluids and cuttings transported via trucks to a landfill just outside Cuba.

The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division approved SandRidge’s drilling permit last month.

History in New Mexico

Discussing the division’s review process, director David Catanach said the division considers an applicant’s previous history in New Mexico, not its experience in other states. New Mexico has about 120,000 oil wells, with 60,000 of them active, he said. The division provides oversight during a project’s major milestones, Catanach said, citing the casing of wells as an example.

Commissioners questioned Catanach about the state’s history of spills and the division’s ability to inspect every active well. Catanach said the division has about eight employees in each of its four districts. He said that, in his 26 years with the division, no spill has affected an area’s drinking water.

Asked by Arango if the division considers an applicant’s financial stability, Catanach reiterated the division considers only an applicant’s previous history in New Mexico.

During SandRidge’s presentation, the SandRidge representative detailed the company’s history of work in Oklahoma and Kansas, as well as previous work in the Albuquerque Basin. He said SandRidge also had previous operations in Lee and Eddy counties, before selling the sites in 2012.

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres was among the speakers during public comment, saying he was concerned about the county’s role in the proposed drill.

“I have more questions than comments and I think the biggest issue with all of this is how safe will this be if it moves forward and what safeguards are you all ensuring before work gets done out there,” Torres said.

Oil and gas ordinance?

“I went online today to find some sort of oil and gas ordinance for the county and I couldn’t find anything, so that’s another question,” Torres said. “Is there an ordinance on the books for that and, if there’s not, when will there be one? And it definitely needs to be before any activity happens out there.”

Torres said county officials should weigh the project’s costs and benefits, saying that, although it might bring business, it might not be the right kind of business.

“We have the Sandoval Economic Alliance … working hard to develop our county. I’m not sure if this is the image any of us wants for Sandoval County,” he said. “Right now, the proposal is for one little dot (referring to a map), but what about in two years, in five years, in 20 years, and is that what we want for our region?”

The vast majority of public comments were against the operation, with 20 of the 22 speakers voicing their opposition. They raised concerns about water use, contaminant danger, damage to property values and the threat of earthquakes.

Fossil fuel concern

Rio Rancho resident JoAnne Gomez said her Oklahoma family tells her about the frequent nature of earthquakes in that area, citing fracking as a likely cause.

Alex Renirie, one of the youngest to speak during the meeting, said a new oil well would go against recent calls from President Barack Obama to move away from traditional energy resources.

“I know we’re considering this issue from a land perspective but, as a young person, I have to talk about the climate,” she said. “Recently, Obama acknowledged that, in order to avoid devastating impacts, we need to avoid digging fossil fuels in the ground.”

Matthew Spangler, a representative of Outer Rim Investments, a AMREP Southwest subsidiary that owns the proposed drill site, said residents should consider the economic opportunities.

“If oil and gas were discovered under Rio Rancho Estates, many, many small and large landowners will be available to develop an income stream,” Spangler said. “The economic benefit from that will bring employment to the community and would fund significant public services, which often don’t have significant funding.”