Town de­fends its wa­ter, way of life

Res­i­dents of Peña Blanca worry county res­o­lu­tion to al­low oil, gas drilling will have ad­verse ef­fects

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Re­becca Moss The New Mex­i­can PEÑA BLANCA

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.”

PHOTOS BY RE­BECCA MOSS/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

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.

PHOTOS BY RE­BECCA MOSS/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

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 or­di­nance set­ting stan­dards for oil and gas com­pa­nies would fail to pro­tect his fam­ily’s prop­erty.

Rio Grande Santa Fe 40 Al­bu­querque San­doval County 25 Las Cruces 10

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