Town defends its water, way of life
Residents of Peña Blanca worry county resolution to allow oil, gas drilling will have adverse effects
Elaine Gilmartin likes to say she grew out of the New Mexican soil.
Five generations of her family were raised in this state, first settling in Lincoln County from France, then moving to San Miguel County. At age 71, she hopes to spend the rest of her life in Sandoval County, in a century-old adobe she shares with a cattle-dog mix and the birds of the bosque.
“Peña Blanca is a perfect example of what is possible,” in New Mexico, she said, listing the organic farms that neighbor her home, and water she is not alone in calling the purest in the state.
It is also an example, Gilmartin says, of “how much is to be lost by the damage of drilling for oil and gas.”
Since a proposed county oil and gas ordinance was introduced earlier in 2017, this small town, about 35 miles from Santa Fe, has become a central focus of many residents, industry groups and lawmakers in the region, culminating in contentious public meetings with attendance exceeding the 112-person capacity of the county chambers in Bernalillo. Even church services have concluded with the screening
of a films about the impact of oil and gas development.
It likely comes to a head Thursday, when the Sandoval County Commission will vote on whether to adopt the ordinance, which sets standards for oil and gas drilling and paves the way for hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a method of extracting minerals using high-pressure injection techniques.
The rule would prohibit drilling within 750 feet of a home, school, church, hospital, cemetery or fresh water supply.
The ordinance asks that areas be fenced, light be directed downward to avoid glare on public roads and facilities be painted to be “visually harmonious with the surrounding environment.” It also highlights compliance with existing state and industry regulations, requiring that operators provide state certificates showing safe water use agreements and plans to clean up a site after the well has been plugged, as well as provide emergency planning documents to county police and fire departments. Violations of the county ordinance will result in a $300 fine.
The ordinance comes amid county efforts to boost economic development and has been underway for nearly two years, since SandRidge Energy, an Oklahoma-based company, filed a permit to drill on private land in Rio Rancho.
The permit was later withdrawn, but it highlighted the lack of a county ordinance and missing guidelines for how industry should operate on private land.
But many residents now fear that if the industry expands in and around its communities, it will degrade the quality of the environment, pollute water supplies crucial for drinking and agriculture and potentially stoke earthquakes.
Unincorporated communities like Peña Blanca feel particularly at risk of their quiet neighborhoods being upended, in part because they don’t have an organizing body, such as a town council and mayor, to help them push back.
“We have had kind of a bucolic life out here for a while,” said Michele Swanson, who lives in Sile, a small village near Peña Blanca and Cochiti Pueblo. But the threat of oil and gas development has changed that, she said. Now, the community is organizing, drawing up poster boards with topographical maps and writing planned public comments for county commission meetings.
“Nobody knows we are here,” Swanson said. “We are just a tiny little town … We don’t have enough laws in these small rural areas for someone not to come in and take advantage of us.”
The Sandoval County ordinance, a 10-page document, outlines parameters for oil and gas development in the diverse terrain of rugged mesas and pale yellow-green plains that span nearly 4,000 square miles between Rio Rancho through the Valles Caldera and up to Counselor. In all, the county is home to more than 130,000 residents. A dozen pueblos overlap inside the county lines.
By contrast, a Santa Fe County ordinance governing drilling is more than 100 pages long. County officials say the document has been in the works for nearly two years, and would govern private land development within the county, while still deferring to state and federal laws.
“We would prefer to have the industry here than not,” said Don Chapman, a Republican who was elected chair of the county commission in January. “This is the economic engine of the state of New Mexico, we don’t want to exclude them.”
“The ordinance in Santa Fe is so onerous the industry won’t bother going there,” Chapman said, adding the Sandoval County ordinance equally weighed economics and environmental protection.
“We have heard from everybody and we have crafted an ordinance that strikes that balance,” he said.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association agrees the ordinance is sound and that production will likely be concentrated to the northern part of the county, tapping into the San Juan Basin — the same area that created one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the Four Corners.
“Oil and gas development is certainly not new to Sandoval County,” said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the Oil and Gas Association. “It has been operating there for some time and has been operating under the existing state and federal guidelines that are long followed by operators across the state.”
Jim Manatt, CEO of Thrust Energy, a company that owns mineral rights in Sandoval County, said in an email that “the ordinance is the product of two years of collaboration between oil and gas, the Commission, the public, and it provides reasonable regulations for Sandoval County beyond those already required by state and federal law.
The Commission and the public have been provided hours, days, weeks, months of expert scientific and engineering testimony on the safe and responsible ongoing development in Sandoval County.”
Sandoval County’s share of the San Juan Basin already houses roughly 1,100 historical oil and gas wells, drilled since at least the 1950s.
Many are still operating, said Ron Broadhead, a petroleum geologist at New Mexico Tech hired by the county planning and zoning commission to study oil and gas potential throughout the county.
The study, commissioned for $60,000, is due in May 2018.
Sile resident Kathleen Groody, an alfalfa farmer and former hydrologist for the state of California, said other communities in New Mexico and Colorado have had the wool pulled over their eyes by the oil and gas industry and fracking advocates.
“Those people had no idea about their rights, they had not organized they just accepted it,” she said. “So we don’t want to fall into that category.”
Geological maps show numerous seismic fault lines running askew to the Rio Grande between Cochiti Pueblo and Santa Ana Mesa and a large water basin below. Residents say these maps illustrate the geology below ground is fractured and the pressure of fracking could risk triggering the faults.
The Rio Grande traverses the county, and some residents say it would be at risk of pollution for oil and gas spills, or that the below ground aquifer could face contamination during drilling operations.
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a six-year study that found fracking through the U.S. had led to groundwater contamination and “can impact water resources.”
Sandra Gutierrez, administrator of Peña Blanca Water & Sanitation District, says its water system has been award-winning.
“We have a good aquifer,” she said. “These people want to destroy it and all for the sake of money. Well, they just don’t care the chemicals that are used for fracking actually contaminate water.”
Outside the door to her office, cows and horses grazed an a wide field just off the road, surrounded by an running irrigation ditch.
“If any of that stuff happens here,” she said, “we will not have good quality drinking water.”
Manatt and McEntyre both maintain water contamination was not at stake.
Manatt said there is 1½ miles of rock between the water table and the area from which oil and gas would be extracted. That, combined with modern drilling technology, make “the potential for water contamination non-existent. With today’s drilling technology utilizing the most advanced engineering on the planet, oil and gas has never been done more safely and technology is advancing daily.”
“The geology in New Mexico, especially in Sandoval County, is very different and vastly less susceptible to man-made earthquakes than places like Oklahoma,” he continued. “We know the types of geologic formations that require precautions and protocols for mitigating the potential for induced seismic activity.”
Manatt, and other industry groups, said while the ordinance adds more hurdles for operators in Sandoval County, it also creates stability for future economic development and benefit.
“Until this ordinance is passed,” he said, “nobody knows what the rules are for conducting in oil and gas development in Sandoval County, in spite of the fact it has been ongoing safely and rewarding for more than 50 years.”
But critics say the way the ordinance is drafted fails to require regular water monitoring and allows the permit process to move quickly, without public notification.
If a permit is submitted with all required material, it can be approved within 10 days, said county spokesman Sidney Hill.
There are no current applications pending, he added.
Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres said the 10-day process, as proposed, doesn’t allow enough time for regulators to be protective of the environment or allow for the consideration of the area’s unique challenges.
“When you are talking about an industry that could impact our aquifer, you want to be really careful about what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Torres said.
“It really doesn’t matter if someone is drilling way up in the northwest part of the county or Rio Rancho, like SandRidge wanted to do; the bottom line is there is not protection for the water and the water that all of us draw from because the water is an underground source,” he said.
County Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes has said he will not vote for the ordinance because it fails to require companies to prove their financial viability or monitor county well water for contamination.
For Diego Ortiz, whose family has lived in Peña Blanca since the 1700s, the issue comes down to water. The family has a 20-acre alfalfa farm they have worked for generations.
On Monday morning, Ortiz was helping his father, Phillip, restart a cement mixing truck. The men had been refurbishing the family hacienda. The dwelling’s floors and walls are made of mud with adobe bricks dating to 1847.
“Water is the most important thing we have,” Diego Ortiz said. “If we can’t irrigate our land, it’s worthless.”
An irrigation ditch runs alongside N.M. 22 in Peña Blanca, a small town in Sandoval County where residents have organized to oppose an oil and gas ordinance they say could bring oil and gas development, which would threaten water and agriculture.
Outside the community center in Peña Blanca, a handwritten sign hangs Monday informing residents about an emergency meeting to discuss water protection. The meeting comes on the eve of a county vote to over an oil and gas ordinance.
ABOVE: Cattle and horses graze Monday on a pasture alongside N.M. 22 in Peña Blanca. BOTTOM LEFT: ‘Water is the most important thing we have,’ said Diego Ortiz, whose family has lived in Sandoval County since the 1770s. He said a proposed county...
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