Mora County sued over oil-drilling ban

Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 9:00 pm | Updated: 1:06 am, Wed Nov 13, 2013.

In a dispute being watched around the United States, a statewide oil and gas association and three Mora County landowners are suing the Mora County Commission over its ban on oil drilling. The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, claims the county’s action in April violates the plaintiffs' civil rights and is unconstitutional.
 

“What the Mora County Commission has done with this ordinance is an insult to the U.S. Constitution and every free citizen,” said Richard Gilliland, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, in a news release Tuesday. The group is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

 


Mora County Commissioner John Olivas said Tuesday he had not seen the suit, so he declined to discuss the legal action itself. However, he defended the commission’s vote.

“I was in a position to protect our resources in Mora County,” he said. “We’re ready for this fight.”

The ban, which passed the commission on a 2-1 vote, says it “shall be unlawful for any corporation to engage in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within Mora County.”

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are landowners Mary L. Vermillion, who, according to the suit, owns less than an acre of land and its mineral rights in Mora County, and the JAY Land Ltd. Co. and Yates Ranch Property, which together own 125,000 acres known as Ojo Feliz Ranch.

“But for the ordinance, JAY and Yates would seek to lease their oil and gas estate to a corporation for the purposes of exploring for and extracting oil and natural gas, or otherwise seek to extract these minerals themselves,” the suit says.

Vermillion “would seek to lease her oil and gas estate to a corporation for the purposes of exploring for and extracting the oil and natural gas” but can’t because of the drilling ban. The Independent Petroleum Association has at least one member who holds valid oil and gas leases in Mora County and would like to drill there, according to the lawsuit.

The ordinance says, “The People of Mora County recognize that water is essential for the life, prosperity, sustainability, and health of their community and that damage to natural groundwater and surface water sources imposes great tangible loss, to the People, natural communities and ecosystems of Mora County, not just for today but for future generations. The People of Mora County recognize that they may be forced, without their consent, to endure or attempt to repair harm inflicted on their environment and their vital water supply, which they have no equivalent governing authority to prevent under current state and federal law.”

However, the lawsuit claims the “true purpose” of the county law is not to protect the water, but to stop the “lawful development of oil and natural gas” and to ban hydraulic fracturing in the county.

“If defendants’ true goal was to protect surface and groundwater supplies within the county, the ordinance would address other industries that are known sources of water pollution, such as the agricultural industry,” the lawsuit argues.

Mora was the first county in the United States to impose an outright ban on all drilling. Shortly before that vote, the San Miguel County Commission rejected a similar drilling ban.

However, that county is considering an ordinance that would outlaw the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” That’s a controversial process that uses high-pressure fluids through well-bore holes to force fractures in shale and other rock formations. It allows oil and gas trapped in the rock to flow out.

In 2008, Santa Fe County, in response to a Texas company’s plan to drill in the Galisteo Basin, adopted a law that doesn’t actually outlaw drilling, but places enough restrictions that those in the oil industry have said it amounts to a ban.

Contact Steve Terrell at sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.

 

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