Friday, September 12, 2008

"Mora Tries To Head Off Drilling" Albuquerque Journal North-- By Raam Wong

Nearly 13,000 acres in Mora County could soon be opened to oil and gas exploration.

The State Land Office is scheduled to auction off leases to land east of Ocate next week, a move opposed by some residents who say it could lead to large-scale energy development in an otherwise rural area.

“We're talking beautiful, untouched land that has never been exploited,” said drilling opponent Kathleen Dudley. “We don't want another Farmington.”

Meanwhile, county officials are hurrying to forestall any drilling until they can beef up their regulations.

The same day of the auction, Sept. 16, the Mora County Commission is expected to pass a moratorium on drilling for at least six months and as long as a year, according to county attorney John Grubesic.

Similar drilling bans have already been enacted in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties, where, like Mora, operators are seeking to explore in largely untapped “frontier” areas.

Grubesic said Mora County will never be able to shut the door on energy exploration. But, he said, “we want to make sure we have as tough an ordinance as possible.”

To that end, residents recently sought an opinion from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center as to whether the county's Development Guidance System — Mora's planning code — can be applied to drilling.

The DGS is meant to “protect and improve the established rural character of Mora County and the social and economic stability of existing agricultural, residential and other existing land uses within the County.”

Law Center attorney Bruce Frederick said Tuesday an operator would likely need to complete an environmental impact report and a compatibility assessment before receiving a conditional use permit. But the county also hopes to strengthen the code to protect the environment and public health and safety, something Santa Fe County is already working on.

“This is a trend where counties are trying to assert more control over oil and gas,” Frederick said, “to make the oil and gas companies pay more attention to local concerns.”

The authority of local municipalities to regulate the industry has already been challenged in Rio Arriba, where a Texas-based company filed suit claiming that oil and gas regulations were the responsibility of the state, not the county.

But the suit was dropped after Gov. Bill Richardson intervened.

Dudley, who is part of the group Drilling Mora County, wants the Land Office to inform its lessees that they'll have to comply with local regulations.