Jul. 15—LOS LUNAS — Valencia County commissioners voted 3-2 shortly after midnight Friday to approve a measure that could open the door to local oil and gas exploration, a move that came after nearly seven hours of public comment from dozens of people.
About 150 people showed up for the hearing at the Los Lunas Transportation Center on Thursday, filling the facility to capacity and leaving standing room only for many participants.
Outside, environmental and community activists protested against the commission's action.
Others counter-protested in favor of oil and gas development. At one point, Valencia County Republican Party Chairman Michael Candelaria briefly disrupted the meeting, imploring people to support fossil fuel-based economic growth with a microphone outside the building that loudly resonated throughout the facility.
In the end, three of the five commissioners voted to approve a new "natural resource overlay zone," which allows developers to apply for exploratory surface and subsurface mineral development in the county without changing existing zoning on targeted properties. That could potentially expedite the permitting process to extract natural resources like oil and gas.
A version of the ordinance was originally approved in May, but commissioners repealed it last month to correct an error in required public notification. And, following a community backlash to demand more public input, commissioners scheduled Thursday's meeting to allow people to voice their opinions before reconsidering the measure.
Nearly 60 people spoke out at Thursday's hearing, about two-thirds of them in opposition to the new overlay zone ordinance. That included members and leaders of many environmental and community organizations, such as Valencia Water Watchers, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action, the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
Many local residents and individuals from Albuquerque and other mid-Rio Grande communities also showed up in opposition, some of whom testified about the potential environmental and health hazards of oil and gas development.
Norm Gaume — former City of Albuquerque water resources manager and former director of the Interstate Stream Commission — called oil and gas a "dirty and contaminated" industry.
Don Phillips, a former oil and gas exploration geologist, warned that drilling in the Rio Grande rift underneath Valencia and surrounding counties would be extremely dangerous, potentially damaging the freshwater aquifer that serves the entire mid-Rio Grande corridor.
The Albuquerque Basin — an undeveloped zone potentially rich in hydrocarbons — is a highly fractured formation with numerous fault lines, Phillips said. Drilling there would likely disturb those fault lines, turning them into conduits for oil and gas to contaminate the basin's freshwater aquifer, while greatly heightening the risk of earthquakes.
"You're just asking for trouble, in my view," Phillips said. "I just think if you start drilling water disposal wells in this basin, the probability of creating earthquakes is going to be 100%."
About 20 people spoke in support of the overlay zone, including members of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, the New Mexico Business Coalition, and employees and consultants with Albuquerque-based oil and gas firm Jalapeño Corp., owned by longtime oilman Harvey E. Yates Jr.
Most said opening Valencia County to oil and gas could bring huge economic benefits to the area, including jobs and tax revenue. In addition, a huge array of safeguards are already in place to adequately protect the environment and local communities, they said, including stringent state laws and regulations, plus immense improvement in technology that makes oil and gas operations highly secure.
"Regulations already on the books have been studied, sliced and diced and proven effective for environmental protection," said Independent Petroleum Association Executive Director Jim Winchester.
The fruits of oil and gas development have immensely improved the quality of life for everyone over the past century, Winchester added. And without the ordinance, "you're cutting off a bunch of Valencia County residents from tax revenues for schools."
Commissioners Jhonathan Aragon, Troy Richardson and Joseph Bizzell — the ordinance's sponsor — voted yes on the measure. Chairman Gerard Saiz and Commissioner David Hyder voted no. Hyder warned that the county is taking a huge risk for likely little real economic benefit, since even Yates — who hopes to begin oil exploration under the ordinance — has said there's probably a 90% chance of failure in striking commercially-viable oil and gas deposits in the area.
"We're playing Russian roulette," Hyder said. "I personally think we need to slam on the brakes."
Valencia County proposal expected to draw crowds Thursday.
Measure would open door to oil and gas exploration.