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Oil and gas drilling bill gets frosty reception

BERNALILLO – The public got its first chance last week to comment on a draft of Sandoval County’s oil and gas ordinance, with some speakers wondering if the county is moving too hastily to adopt the measure.

Between 20 and 30 people attended Tuesday’s meeting at the county administrative building. A second meeting is scheduled this Tuesday.

Makita Hill, long-range senior planner for the county’s planning and zoning division, oversaw the meeting, allowing speakers to comment on the draft with no time limitation.

He said the meetings will help county officials identify residents’ concerns before the ordinance is presented to the planning and zoning commission in October.

The commission will hold two meetings that month to get additional input, he said

The proposed ordinance establishes the county’s requirements to apply for a zone change to drill in the county and includes measures intended to protect the public during production and post-production phases.

Eleven speakers commented on the draft Tuesday.

Recommendations included increasing the 750-foot buffer called for drilling sites and schools, making the ordinance non-retroactive for existing oil wells in the northern part of the county and requiring the county to monitor groundwater.

Bob Wessely of Placitas said the ordinance should make it clear that the county will oversee the work of an oil company’s drilling and surface impacts.

“Oil and gas is an intrusive industry,” Wessely said. “(The state’s oil conservation division) doesn’t affectively regulate the on-the-surface impacts … Their regulations mostly affect the down-hole behavior, the geology stuff.”

Robert Gorrell, vice president of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association, said the ordinance should require the county to notify residents of zone change applications by drilling applicants within 60 days of a planning and zoning hearing.

Gorrell and Mike Neas, also of Placitas, questioned the ordinance’s 30-page length.

“I believe that the document is probably 70 pages shy at this point,” Neas said. “There’s a lot that we need in order to strengthen it and I think that it will take time to do it. We need several months to get this right, I guess, and we have to get it right.”

The county should take its time, said Matthew Gonzales, director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s Good Neighbor Program.

“For you guys to take something on like this and to push it through in under a month, it’s crazy,” Gonzales said. “We’re talking about people with the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the state’s environmental department. They have the technical expertise to handle these kinds of things, as does the industry, and it still takes us months to come up with this kind of regulation. So we feel that this is being crammed down our throats.”

Gonzales asked why county officials had not reached out to the association, saying it feels “somewhat slighted” for not being involved.

Eleanor Bravo, Southwest organizer for Food and Water Watch, also questioned why the county had not spoken with environmentalists about the draft.

“We would like to be a part of this process but we’ve been cut out of that process,” Bravo said. “Maybe we don’t have the expertise that (New Mexico Tech) has, but we have expertise in other areas.”

The county was spurred to draft an ordinance after an Oklahoma company filed an application for a zone change to drill an exploratory well in an unincorporated area just outside the city limits of Rio Rancho. The planning and zoning commission recommended denial of the zone change, amid considerable public protests about the application. The company, SandRidge Energy, subsequently withdrew the application.

Hill said the county will continue to work on the ordinance with the assistance of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The county signed a professional relationship agreement with New Mexico Tech in July, allowing it to consult with the school on oil- and gas-related questions.

The next meeting on the draft ordinance is Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. in the commission chamber in the county administrative building.

A digital copy of the draft can be viewed on the county’s website, as well as at the county’s administrative office.