October 27, 2017

Tensions high as Sandoval County proposes new oil and gas ordinance

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Laura Paskus

Drilling already occurs in northern Sandoval County, but tensions rose after an exploratory well was proposed for near Rio Rancho two years ago.

Sandoval County’s attempts to plan for oil and gas development continue to draw heated criticism.

At their October 19 meeting, county commissioners pulled a proposed ordinance from the agenda, but the commission fielded public comments for nearly an hour, mostly from people who oppose the proposed oil and gas ordinance.

Sandoval County covers 3,700 square miles, stretching from Bernalillo to Counselor and Placitas to Torreon. Widespread drilling already occurs in the northern part of the county, which overlaps with the energy-rich San Juan Basin. Those wells are concentrated along Highway 550 north of Cuba and near the Navajo Nation.

But in 2015, the state approved plans by SandRidge, an Oklahoma-based company, to drill an exploratory well on the west side of Rio Rancho. The company needed county approval to drill on that two-acre plot of land, which was permitted for residential and agricultural use. Under the county’s current rules, companies require a “special use” permit to drill.

Before the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission could issue a ruling, in early 2016 SandRidge withdrew its application and its request to the county. The company has since filed for bankruptcy. But the issue has continued moving. Just last month, Planning and Zoning recommended that oil and gas development be reclassified from a “special use” to a “permissive use” activity.

Most of the people who spoke at the October 19 Sandoval County commission meeting opposed the current draft of that ordinance, including Bob Wessely of Placitas.

“I’m disappointed in finding how badly your oil and gas ordinance has run off the tracks,” he told commissioners. “The flawed process and the incomplete content will expose the county to significant liability, possibly immediately, and certainly after the first explosive accident or pollution leak event.” He urged commissioners to reject the ordinance and “demand a better one.”

Wessely’s planned comments were cut off during the meeting, but NM Political Report followed up with Wessely, who is active in New Mexico water issues.

According to Wessely, the Planning and Zoning Commission process was “truncated,” and the county rushed unnecessarily to adopt the ordinance. He also said the current draft of the ordinance ignores the risks associated with drilling activities and “fails to meet its main purpose—to provide industry with incentives to operate safely and responsibly—to avoid the human tendency to cut corners in favor [of] profit or laziness.”

Adequate public hearings on applications, monitoring for leaks or violations, post-abandonment financial assurances and sufficient insurance limits are among the omissions that worry Wessely. He urged commissioners to “avoid the liabilities,” reject the current ordinance draft and demand that Planning and Zoning come up with a “well-balanced replacement.”

Connie Falk, a retired New Mexico State University professor of agricultural economics also spoke at the county commission meeting.

“The current ordinance as written will allow the company to reap all the profits, while externalizing to Sandoval County and its citizens all of its risks and costs associated with spills, emergencies, noise, water and soil and air pollution, road deterioration, financial insolvency of industry operators, soil erosion and the economics of a boom and bust industry,” she said.

Two people at the meeting spoke in favor of the ordinance.

Energy attorney Miguel Suazo said the ordinance struck the “right balance” and needs to be enacted, adding that the “silent majority” needs jobs and has been waiting 700 days for the ordinance to pass.

Steve vanHorn, president of the Rio Rancho TEA Party also supported the ordinance. “Democracy in its pure form is mob rule,” he said to commissioners. “That’s why we have a republic, and we trust you to make decisions.”

NM Political Report contacted Chapman to ask him about the ordinance, the energy industry’s interest in the county and what is known about oil and gas resources in the area. He did not respond to voicemails or emails.

“As with any oil and gas regulations, activity or anything that impacts the industry’s operations in New Mexico, we’re certainly monitoring all of those activities,” said Robert McEntyre, director of communications for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. Like other stakeholders and community members, the trade group has weighed in on the issue, he said.

“Broadly, we can categorically say that we have a group of folks in Sandoval County who are committed to stopping oil and gas everywhere, not just in Sandoval County, and are using a number of scare tactics and half-truths to achieve that objective,” he said. “Our goal is to provide facts.”

He added that NMOGA’s goal is “for our companies and our industry to be good neighbors and to work hand-in-hand with their communities.”

One minute to speak

During the October 19 meeting, Commission Chair Don Chapman allowed people to speak for only one minute.

“Some of you who signed up for public comment tonight, I know I have personally heard from you at least a dozen times over the past two years, so tonight we’re going to give you one minute,” Chapman said, asking people to be “concise” and not “repeat what we’ve heard time and time again on this issue.”

Recent Sandoval County Commission meetings have seen a large number of union supporters voicing their opposition to a proposed right-to-work ordinance.

Sandoval County Commission Chairman Don Chapman

At least one person from the audience protested, saying public comment is supposed to be three minutes. Chapman responded: “It is three minutes for public comment, but I’ve heard a dozen times from these folks.…”

As noise rose in the room, Chapman said, “I will clear the room and nobody will have any public comment. Would you like to have it that way?” he said. “We’ve been doing this for two years, leadership. I’m going to give you a minute. If you want to take your minute, you’re welcome to it. If you don’t, you’re welcome to leave, too.”

Some people criticized the time limit.

“You stood up there and you pledge allegiance to the flag and this constitution and you said we can come and redress our government,” said New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO President Jon Hendry. “And it’s ridiculous to give us 60 seconds to do that.” Another man said he was “very offended” to have just one minute to speak and said he thought that was illegal.

Under the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA), public bodies must allow people to attend, listen and participate in all public meetings. The law does not, however, mandate time for public comments. Instead, governing bodies are required each year to adopt an annual resolution laying out their rules and procedures for the year. During their January 2017 meeting, commissioners approved the Sandoval County OMA Policy, which says that unless additional time is granted by the chairman, comments are limited to three minutes.

“The commissioners can’t change rules they approved in January on a whim, and citizens shouldn’t have to rely on commissioners’ kindness to express their support or opposition on issues that impact their families and their communities,” said Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

Peter St. Cyr

“It’s never in the public’s interest for elected officials to dismiss their constituents’ comments,” St Cyr said. “It is disturbing to hear commissioners express hostility toward civic engagement. We think that commissioners should welcome a collaborative process. When stakeholders are allowed to help inform, shape and direct public policy, we can solve big social and civic problems.”

The commission was also criticized by the Pueblo of San Felipe for its handling of the ordinance. In an October 10 letter to the commissioners, Pueblo of San Felipe Gov. Anthony Ortiz and Lt. Gov. Carl Valencia pointed out problems with the ordinance, including the lack of consultation with tribes, neglect of tribal water quality standards and the lack of set-backs from tribal boundaries.

According to the letter, during an October 4 meeting pueblo officials asked commissioners to delay their vote until after the ordinance was amended to include tribal concerns. “The Pueblo acknowledged that there was public outcry against the Ordinance, and suggested that delaying the vote and amending the Ordinance to include our concerns may show the Public that the County is taking a thoughtful approach to this matter,” according to the letter. “It was then a surprise to us when Chairman Chapman announced publically (sic) that the Pueblo of San Felipe was in agreement with the Ordinance as written. We do not appreciate this public misrepresentation of our conversation.”

The current draft of the ordinance can be read here or on the Sandoval County website. At its  November 16 meeting, the commission will vote whether or not to adopt it. Until that time, members of the public can also submit written comments.

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