Land grant group joins Mora fight against oil drilling

Anti-fracking signs are posted around Mora County. New Mexican file photo

Little Mora County rolled the legal dice against a Goliath-sized industry opponent and lost.

A federal judge has ruled that an oil and gas drilling ban adopted by the mostly rural northeastern New Mexico county is unconstitutional and invalid.

Mora County isn’t the first local jurisdiction to impose restrictions on such activities with the goal of protecting the environment, but U.S. District Judge James O. Browning of Albuquerque said its ordinance went too far.

In a 199-page ruling issued Monday, he said the ordinance violated the First Amendment by “chilling” protected activities by corporations. He also found the ordinance violates state law, and that the county lacks the authority to enforce it on state land.

The ordinance grew out of concerns for protecting land and water after oil and gas companies in recent years leased mineral rights for more than 30,000 acres in Mora County. Residents became especially worried about potential water pollution from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a drilling technique in which pressurized fluids are used to crack open underground rock formations and release oil and gas.

Neighboring San Miguel County has approved land use regulations similar to rules adopted a few years ago by Santa Fe County that restrict oil and gas development but don’t ban it. And Mora County commissioners had been working to create restrictive oil and gas regulations similar to Santa Fe County’s when a group began pushing for an outright ban in Mora County.

Two of the three Mora County commissioners in 2013 approved the Mora Community Water Rights and Self-Governance Act, which included the ban on oil and gas drilling. Commissioner Paula Garcia voted against it, worried the county would be sued over the measure.

Within a few months, Mora County was, in fact, sued by SWEPI, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, as well as by two private landowners.

The Mora land grant association — La Merced de Santa Gertrudis de lo de Mora — joined the lawsuit in support of the ban on oil and gas drilling.

New York recently became the first state to ban fracking, although hefty zoning regulations already were in place that left much of the state’s natural gas untouchable. The New York high court in 2014 upheld the right of towns to regulate oil and gas extraction through land use zoning.

Some community rights organizers said Mora County’s ordinance was too far-reaching in its attempt to rein in corporations. “It was a fantasy,” said Robin Collier, a longtime community activist from Taos. “I can’t understand how anyone reading that ordinance could have supported it.”

The Mora County “community rights” ordinance, as well as versions adopted by local governments elsewhere in the country, was crafted by attorney Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Pennsylvania to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling a few years ago that corporations have the same rights as people.

Browning found that the ordinance went far beyond the county’s historical lawmaking “just to deprive corporations of their rights.”

But in one part of his ruling, he also wrote that SWEPI couldn’t make the case that it was a disadvantaged class suffering a “history of oppression.”

“It may be argued that hippies, the mentally disabled and homosexuals have been subject to a history of discrimination and oppression, but such a description cannot be said of corporations,” Browning wrote. “While corporations are persons for constitutional purposes, they still are not real human beings, deserving of respect and dignity. Corporations are often the most powerful lobbyers in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals across the nation.”

County Commissioner John Olivas and Kathleen Dudley, who ran the nonprofit Drilling Mora County in the village of Ocate, had led the push for adoption of the ordinance, saying an outright ban on oil and gas drilling was needed to push back against the power of the industry.

“We intrinsically understood that we must challenge unjust laws that give corporations more rights than those who live within their community,” said Dudley, who currently isn’t living in Mora County. “This basic tenet must be changed in order for there to be justice.”

Olivas, who lost his bid for re-election last year, did not respond to emails and messages seeking for comment on the judge’s ruling.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 184, introduced in the state Legislature, seeks to take away severance tax bonds from counties that adopt ordinances that increase the cost of oil and gas production or coal mining by more than 25 percent.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

(8) comments

D. Stark

What greater beauty could be tossed aside for the sheer sake of the mighty dollar? And yes, it's not just the landscape, the quiet, the clear and magical sky and the wild life, but a way of life and culture so very rare these days.

Mora County and other rural areas should join together at the hip and collectively battle the courts. Maybe we need to pay a visit to Governor Cuomo and enlist his support. The wagons are getting closer to Chaco. Is there nothing more sacred than money?

Raquel Casillas

The people of New Mexico, no matter where they live, need to stand up to this Mega Corporation and legally put up the best defense. Good water is way too precious here in New Mexico. Without water, we are all sickened and doomed. Since gas px's are now low I believe Shell will aggressively pursue this area of the world due to the size of terrain, ease of legal battleground, and the low count of the population. They want to seize the opportunity to produce more oil to offset current loses for their shareholders asap. It's oil production on steroids for them. New Mexicans for New Mexico please stand together. We have a governor that is not interested in protecting the land which also makes us at risk. Her campaign has been funded by big oil and it is now payback time for her.

William Geoghegan

Mora county will have to do what Santa Fe and San Miguel counties have done. Meanwhile the people of New Mexico need to think about other ways of keeping pollution out of the ground.

James Prull

Fracking processes contaminate the earth…period! Scientific / Physical Proof is showing up in all the places the process is utilized. The industries involved, owned by the 1%, don't care at all about your ground water or your future. There only concern is $$$…sick, short sighted greed…..

Joseph Hempfling

So where is the surprise; this is only round one in what promises to be a long expensive fight for the fossil fuel industry and like Monsanto they are on the proverbial ropes and they know it. Check out New York and so many other states who are also in this battle over self-determination and Community Rights. This temporary set back is just that a temporary setback and with the price of oil falling tru the ground and fracking proving not only dangerous but extravagantly expensive, how much more fight can they have in them. The time has come to ban Fracking Period, and now it is time they smell the coffee ! or go bankrupt in their stupidity.

Henry Wilkins

I meant wire transfer.

Henry Wilkins

He finally got his check.

Thomas Carlson

Dear Judge Browning. Your check is in the mail. Sincerely, the Fossil Fuel Lobby.

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