Now that commissioners in Mora County have approved the only county-wide ordinance in the nation specifically prohibiting all oil and gas drilling, prepare for lawyers on both sides to do battle.
Wally Drangmeister, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told New Mexico Watchdog his organization “can’t comment on filing a lawsuit” but that “many people in the industry and people who have leased land (in Mora County) are looking very closely at that.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the county commission that passed the no-drilling ordinance told us Friday (May 3) that an out-of-state environmental group based is about to sign an agreement to defend the county’s decision in court.
Lawsuits “have always been on the table,” commissioner John Olivas told New Mexico Watchdog. “What we’re doing to prepare ourselves is signing with a legal firm to represent us.”
The firm is the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit based in Pennsylvania that last year helped draft language for opponents of hydraulic fracturing — commonly called “fracking” — in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
“At the next county commission meeting, we’ll sign a retainer with the firm,” said Olivas, who said the fee will be $1. Olivas also said Mora County — one of the poorest in the state — will establish a fund to help pay for the law firm’s travel and living expenses.
Last Monday (April 29), Mora County commissioner passed the ordinance on a 2-1 vote.
“The primary reason was water protection,” Olivas said. “The next one was the community vastly supported the decision.”
But in a state where gas and extractive industries accounted for $1.7 billion in severance taxes in fiscal year 2012 — with more than half of that total going to public schools and higher education in the state — Mora County’s decision has reverberated.
“If actions like these stand unchallenged, the area will never have oil and gas produced,” Drangmeister said. “It could be a very bad development for oil and gas and the entire state of New Mexico.”
“The folks in Mora County send their kids to schools that are funded largely by oil and gas, heat their homes and watch TV by the power of gas and/or some other nasty fossil fuel, drive on roads that have a petroleum base, and generally benefit from the fact that society around them embraces fossil fuels and oil and gas exploitation,” Gessing wrote.
“The resource belongs to the state of New Mexico,” Olivas said, adding he wants to change the state and federal constitutions.
“I’d rather fight industry in court that clean up after them when they leave our community,” comparing the looming battle to David and Goliath. “I think it can lead to a domino effect,” Olivas said.
It’s estimated oil companies such as Shell have leases on some 100,000 acres in the eastern part of Mora County so when the expected lawsuits come, one of the chief arguments is expected to center on property rights.
“We need to create other jobs,” Olivas said. “First, sustainable agriculture, second, business development and third, eco-tourism to keep people on the land.”
“Every school district in New Mexico benefits from oil and gas,” Drangmeister said. “Every county benefits … I’m not a legal scholar but from an 8th-grade civics standpoint, (the ordinance) has assertions that are troubling and questionable.”
Click http://www.scribd.com/doc/139339332/Mora-County-Oil-and-Gas-Ordinance to read the 7-page ordinance.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and reach him on Twitter at @nmwatchdog