Late last month, the elected officials of a small, rural New Mexico county became the first in the nation to vote for permanent poverty. Mora County’s unemployment is double that of most of the country and nearly 500% greater than that of some other parts of the state where oil and gas development is taking place, and 23.8% of Mora County’s residents live in poverty. With that in mind, you’d think that the Mora County Commissioners would welcome the jobs that are boosting the economy in the southeastern part of the state. Instead, they voted, 2-1—in a session that may violate the Open Meetings Act as the notice did not contain the date, time, and place of the meeting—to pass an ordinance that permanently bans oil and gas drilling.
Defending his vote, Chairman John Olivas, an employee of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance with no political experience, explained: “We need to create other jobs. First, sustainable agriculture; second, business development; and third, eco-tourism to keep people on the land."
Frank Trambley, the Mora County GOP chairman, disagrees: “In our economic climate, we simply cannot afford to needlessly throw the possibility for jobs down the drain.”
Currently, Mora County has no oil and gas activity—and now it looks like it never will (though the outcome of potential lawsuits could change that). But there is reason to believe that the potential for development and jobs is there. Shell Oil has 100,000 acres leased for development—not to mention private interest—in Mora County, and there are more than 120 leases on state lands within the county.
In adjacent Colfax County, there are 950 natural gas wells. There the Commissioners don’t seem too troubled by the activity. The Colfax Country Commissioners are looking at drafting an ordinance that would “allow oil and gas drilling to continue while setting standards and regulations to give county officials control over aspects of the industry’s work that affect landowners and other citizens.”
But this story is bigger than the sparsely populated—less than 5000 and declining—northeastern New Mexico County. Following the passage of their “ban” ordinance, the two “yes” vote commissioners sent a letter to all the county commissioners in the state: “We’re sending you this letter to urge you to consider adopting a similar law. In Mora, we decided that ‘fracking,’ along with other forms of oil and gas drilling are not compatible with Mora farming, forestry, and our quality of life.” Apparently unemployment and poverty are “compatible” with the Mora “quality of life.”
How did Mora come to believe that it might become the little county that could “force” change aimed at “restoring democratic control of our communities”? They had the help of an out-of-state environmental group: the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)—which helped draft Mora’s “Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance.” Thomas Linzey, executive director of CELDF explained: “This is the fight that people have been too chicken to pick over the last 10 years.” The CELDF press release on the ban states: “Mora is joining a growing people’s movement for community and nature’s rights” and brags about CELDF’s involvement in other communities across the country.
The Mora Commissioners’ letter—on County letterhead—encourages all other New Mexico Commissioners to join them and invites participation in a gathering “hosted by a new group, the New Mexico Coalition for Community Rights (NMCCR) which was formed this past year to begin to change how our system here in New Mexico functions.” Kathleen Dudley, a “community organizer” and CELDF staffer, is the “contact person for that event.”
Wayne Johnson, a Bernalillo County Commissioner, alerted me to the Mora letter that may be in violation of state’s code of conduct—to which every elected official is subject. Johnson told me: “I believe I would at least be violating the spirit of the law if I sent out a letter on Bernalillo County letterhead that directly promotes the political activities of a specific group. Imagine the uproar that would be caused if I sent out—at taxpayers’ expense—a letter promoting an NRA conference or a Right to Life meeting. The First Amendment guarantees the right to express their political opinion. However using government resources to do so is inappropriate.”
The letter also includes this: “You may be unaffected by fracking and oil and gas drilling in your county.” Wrong. There is no county in New Mexico that is “unaffected.” In response to the letter, Greg Nibert, Chairman of the Chaves County Commission, shot back: “The oil and gas producing counties bear more than 40% of the entire state budget. We send money to Santa Fe that pays for educating the children of New Mexico. It is difficult to swallow that a county who may be blessed with such rich resources would enact such an ordinance.” Along with the other counties in the region, the Chaves County Commissioners plan to send a “strong letter in opposition to the Mora County Commission letter.” In a recent radio interview Mora’s Olivas said that he had no problem accepting state revenue from energy development in other counties, but is unwilling to allow any production and contribution from his own.
If the other counties followed Mora’s lead and banned fracking and/or oil and gas development, the state would lose 33,000 jobs—that’s 33,000 people who would be unable to put food on their families’ tables, pay their bills without worry, and even save for retirement. The states’ budget would be short a combined $5.73 billion dollars of investment. The majority of New Mexico’s 50,000+ wells use hydraulic fracturing for decades.
Nibert hopes some brave citizens of Mora County will step forward and bring a law suit against Mora County and at least its two commissioners who enacted the ordinance, as it takes the real property of its citizens without compensation, which is guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Constitution of New Mexico. To date, no one has come forward. “I know some lawyers who would love to take the case!
Nibert may get his wish. Several groups are looking at a legal challenge.
The one dissenting vote was from Commissioner Paula Garcia, who believes the ordinance goes too far. Federal and state law typically overrides local county legislation, but in regards to oil and gas extraction, the Mora ordinance puts the county above state and US government. Garcia says: “It is trying to reclaim local decision making that isn't recognized in the law currently, and, in essence, it is challenging existing laws.” She “worries the ordinance won't hold up in court and that Mora County can’t afford a pricey lawsuit.”
The state says its Oil Conservation Division can still issue permits to drill in Mora County, but permit holders will now likely have to go to court to fight the county ordinance. Likewise, officials at the Bureau of Land Management say that they are not bound by local ordinances. Yet, the little county’s ordinance has the gall to demand an amendment to the state Constitution “to explicitly secure a community right to local self-government that cannot be preempted by the State”—even threatening secession.
Olivas believes Mora County is prepared: “What we’re doing to prepare ourselves is signing with a legal firm to represent us. At the next County Commissioner meeting, we will sign a retainer with the firm.” It is reported that CELDF is the firm—charging $1 for representation, and that Mora County is working to establish a fund to help pay for the living and travel expenses involved in representation.
Trambley told me: “The County is split on the drilling issue, but people are afraid to speak out against the ban—afraid that if they do, they’ll lose their job. It’s maddening to see sweeping bans being made without accurate information about the economic and environmental effects of drilling.”
A recent poll from the Western Energy Alliance supports Trambley’s position. Responses showed that “prior to any presentation of the facts, almost a majority (49%) of voters support” the use of fracking. However, “if and when the public understands what industry is doing to protect their safety and the environment, their support for hydraulic fracturing increases up to 71%.”
I firmly believe that government closest to the people is the best. I’ve rallied with hundreds of people from other New Mexico counties who are fighting federal overreach that denies them their economic freedoms. But, when an out-of-state entity is driving an issue by spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and when the Commission has to hide the time and location of the meeting to get the vote through—that is not the true voice of the locals.
Commissioner Olivas defends his actions by claiming that his vote followed through on a campaign promise. Sources tell me that his campaign was heavily funded by a single source that doesn’t primarily live in the county and whose money comes from the Progressive Insurance fortune.
While this is a New Mexico story, beware. CELDF has its sights set on a national movement. Emboldened by its success in Mora County, they may be coming to a community near you. You may find that your local leadership voted for permanent poverty.
A tweet from Occupy New Mexico following the Mora announcement: “After the victory in Mora, the #communityrights movement is spreading across New Mexico. Next up, #SantaFe #NM! @OccupyWallStNYC @350 #NMPOL” You can be sure they are not just “spreading across New Mexico.”