Drilling into proposed county oil and gas ordinances

A huge issue that will affect the future of Sandoval County financially and environmentally has been whittled down to three documents.

County leaders and residents have been working to develop an oil and gas ordinance since last year, with many starts and stops, and a lot of contention.

Two citizens working group ordinances, one named the Feldblum Ordinance  after recent CWG member Mary Feldblum and the other named the Science Team CWG ordinance, are on the table, along with the Block Ordinance, named after County Commissioner Jay Block.

As it stands, the three proposed ordinances will have to go through the planning and zoning commission before one or more end up before the county commissioners for a final vote.

Feldblum’s view

Drilling into proposed county oil and gas ordinances

“The charter that was passed in March just didn’t give us enough time to cover everything both in the county and the ordinance that we wanted to address,” Feldblum said. “So we felt, the 17 of us that signed on to do a citizens working group ordinance, that public outreach as well as scientific explanation was essential.”

Feldblum, a long-time academic, gave the working group members assignments to see how other counties were addressing oil and gas.

“It was a very exciting process, because everyone gave presentations on their research,” Feldblum said. “I gave a guideline that I didn’t want anyone making up their own definitions, and the more we relied on oil and gas areas, the better.”

Feldblum explained that going out to the areas of the county that feel like they’re not being heard was why it took so much time to produce a final document.

“We did multiple listening sessions and we gathered information from everyone we spoke with to see what it was that they wanted in their ordinance,” she said.

Feldblum also supplied these groups with information that explained what a county can regulate as long as it is not in conflict with New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD) rules.

Issues that counties may address through their land-use authority are:

• air quality,

• cultural, historical and archeological protection,

• dust,

• emergency services,

• fencing,

• hours of operation,

• insurance,

• lighting,

• noise,

• odors,

• remedies for possible property rights impacts,

• roads/ traffic standards,

• distance from hospitals, schools, homes, businesses, churches, etc.,

• visual impacts,

• waste disposal,

• water usage, and

• water protection.

The Feldblum Ordinance addresses those issues in detail.

“OCD doesn’t deal with noise, lighting, setbacks, hours of operation, fencing. … All these things are very important.” Feldblum said. “We also gave these groups information about permitting processes, because in the Block Ordinance, the county is divided into two sections. One district is the San Juan Basin area and that doesn’t have a hearing; it’s an administrative decision.”

Feldblum tried to clear up whether county residents had to go through an administrator, the planning and zoning department, or the county commission for concerns related to oil and gas.

Arango’s perspective

Drilling into proposed county oil and gas ordinances

Arango, who has served on the Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission for almost 20 years, said he and his team have done their due diligence to create an ordinance that is environmentally sound.

“My expertise is not on the science part, but what you can do with an ordinance in Sandoval County,” Arango said. “Just two years ago, when SandRidge Energy wanted to do drilling in the county, the county had no experience with an oil and gas application. Although there were at that time over 400 wells in the northern part of the county, this issue had never come up before planning and zoning, because all of those wells are on either federal or tribal land.”

Arango said he became involved in the citizens working group when it was originally 11 members appointed to draft an ordinance because the other ordinances that came before the commission were met with strong opposition from county residents.

“So we had our first meeting, which created an ordinance team to actually draft a planning and zoning ordinance,” Arango said. “At the third meeting, we split over two issues. One was the four-month deadline given by the county commission.

“The second issue was that we believed that what the county commission was looking for was an ordinance based on the geology of the county.”

Arango explained that Feldblum wanted more time to inform and discuss procedures with county residents. Arango said his group wanted to inform the commission as well as residents about the different types of geology that would prevent contamination of groundwater during drilling.

“The county is so large that the geology is very different in different parts of the county,” he said. “This meant that there had to be different standards in different parts of the county. The rest of the ordinance team disagreed; they wanted a single set of standards across the county…so we split.”

As it stands, the Science Team CWG ordinance divides the county into three regions. One region called the San Juan Basin is from Cuba north, and oil and gas companies could easily obtain a drilling permit there because of its geological security.

The second, called the Albuquerque Basin or the Middle Rio Grande Basin, would only allow vertical drilling under strict supervision because how close the oil is to the aquifer.

The third area of the county has not been studied and would have to be surveyed at the expense of the drilling company to get a permit.

“We are sitting now in what is called the Middle Rio Grande Rift, which is one of four active rifts in the world,” Arango said.

He said active rifts are characterized by extreme fracturing of the ground from the surface down. Underneath this fracturing is a layer of moving magma, which means there is a small threat of an earthquake and constant creation of new fractures.

“The concern is, if anyone was to drill in this area, that the pocket of oil found might be right next to some aquifer, and if the fracture is moving, it could cause a contamination,” Arango said. “Our position is that it is very dangerous to do horizontal drilling in an area that is highly fractured.”

Block’s take

Drilling into proposed county oil and gas ordinances

Block said he put another proposed ordinance in the ring because he was afraid the citizens working group ordinances would be too restrictive and put the county in a legal bind.

“I listened for hours about what the citizens of the county didn’t like about the (Dan) Stoddard Ordinance,” Block said. “I listened to what the citizens were saying when it came to water testing, distance, tribal notification, air quality and lighting…it’s all in my ordinance, it’s all there.”

Block said the New Mexico Tech survey revealed that unconventional drilling was less intrusive and less of a risk than conventional drilling, which he thought upset both working groups.

“I wanted to take something from the Stoddard Ordinance that was less restrictive and a few aspects from the CWG that was more restrictive and meet in the middle,” Block said. “This ordinance here has not been endorsed by NMOGA (New Mexico Oil and Gas Association); they don’t like it.

“Plus this is the most restrictive ordinance in the state of New Mexico for any counties that have ongoing oil and gas operations.”

Block said his ordinance is a compromise ordinance, since “either the county leaves the oil in the ground or allows companies to pull it out,” he said.

Feldblum said she thinks Block’s ordinance is too vague and does not define in detail what guidelines he wants to regulate.

Arango said he sees the Block Ordinance as a revamp of the already rejected Stoddard Ordinance with a few items added.

“Block’s ordinance is really the Stoddard Ordinance with lipstick; in fact, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” Arango said.

The Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission will decide the fate of these three ordinances tomorrow at its regularly scheduled meeting beginning at 4:30 p.m. on the third floor of county building D, at 1500 Idalia Road.