Local oil and gas representatives and officials say a lawsuit filed against Mora County for its allegedly “unconstitutional” ban on oil and gas production is worth the fight.
“My biggest concern is the unconstitutional nature of the ordinance itself,” said Richard Gilliland, of Hunt Cimarron in Roswell and president of Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico. “Our main goal is to just enforce the constitutional principles that are being violated by this ordinance.”
IPANM filed the suit Tuesday, representing several lessees, and joined by Mary Vermillion, Jay Land Ltd., and Yates Ranch Property Ltd., represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation.
IPANM seeks to overturn the ordinance, Gilliland said.
Mora became the first county in the country to ban oil and gas development when commissioners voted 2-1 to adopt an ordinance outlawing the extraction of the natural resources in April.
A small group in the county pushed through a grassroots plan that began before 2009 to fight against oil and gas development in eastern Mora County. No active oil or gas wells existed at the time.
“These state resources in Mora County, they don’t belong to the commissioners in Mora County, they belong to the citizens of New Mexico,” Gilliland said.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.
“It’s a dangerous precedent to set,” Gilliland said. “The principals are important enough that it’s worth the fight.”
Chaves County Commissioner Greg Nibert said he approves of IPANM’s lawsuit against Mora County.
“I am delighted that IPANM and others are taking Mora County to court,” Nibert said Wednesday.
Nibert and Lea County Commissioner Greg Fulfer have discussed with legislative delegates the issue of unfairness that more than 40 percent of the state budget is funded by a handful of counties that support oil and gas industry, only to see that money go to counties that oppose oil and gas extraction.
“It really irks me to see Mora County pass an ordinance that prohibits oil and gas production, yet beg the governor to allocate severance tax money (from our counties) to fund their mismanagement, such as the Mora County Courthouse,” Nibert said. “I wish IPANM well in its suit against Mora County and look forward to the federal court ruling in IPANM’s favor.”
The sparse county of 4,700 residents received $2.1 million in severance tax funds from the oil and gas industry in New Mexico last year.
That money paid for a $1.8 million payment to its county courthouse complex, $16,300 for senior center meals program equipment, $100,000 for the Morphy Lake Dam rehabilitation project design and $175,000 for a Wagon Mound Senior Center construction project.
Mora County Commissioner John Olivas, who was elected three years ago on the sole platform to pass the oil and gas ban, said he expected the lawsuit.
“It’s unfortunate municipalities and counties are unable to say no,” said Olivas, who is also involved with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
“When they do say no, they are in threats of litigation of corporations. Here in Mora County, we took a stance to protect our resources around water, land and air.
“Because we took that stance, we’ve been challenged by corporations and it’s unfortunate, but it’s the system we live in.”
The ordinance was written by a group of 12 citizens and two commissioners.
The commissioners created the oil and gas ban using a template provided by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — a national environmental community activist group whose belief is that the nation is in the midst of an “ecological crisis and that the crisis is the result of decisions made by a relatively few people who run corporations and government.”
CELDF’s New Mexico Organizer Kathleen Dudley, in Mora County, said she began a grassroots campaign three years ago to get two favorable commissioners elected on the three-member board in order to pass the ordinance.
Olivas took office in January 2011 and Commissioner Alfonso Griego began in January of this year.
“They both beat incumbents,” Dudley said. “We’re very proud of them.”
The ordinance that seeks to put the county’s decision-making rights ahead of corporate rights was written carefully to focus on water, local self-government rights, health and safety.
“This is truly about opening up this conversation and exposing that corporations are privileged over you and me,” Dudley said.
The U.S. Constitution was “written by privileged white men. Unjust laws have to be challenged and that is what we’re doing today. It’s just that simple.”
For Griego, who wasn’t a member of the original 14-member working group, his main concern is protecting water.
“In Mora County, our only life source we have is our water,” Griego said. “That’s my main reason for voting for it. Agriculture really is our main economic drive. In my opinion, we have enough water to sustain us until times get better, but we have no water to waste or give away.”