Sandoval County is in the process of amending its comprehensive zoning ordinance to deal with oil and gas extraction. This all started in November 2015 when SandRidge Energy Inc., an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company, applied for a special-use permit to drill near Rio Rancho city limits. Citizens groups pushed back and exposed Sandoval County’s lack of ordinances to protect water, roads, cultural resources, property values, and public health against oil and gas extraction.
An ordinance is a police power that the county implements to protect and promote its residents’ public health, safety, and general welfare. Sandoval County must adopt an oil and gas ordinance that guarantees aquifer protection, does not divide the county into drilling zones, ensures adequate public notice and input for all county residents before drilling occurs, requires adequate application information from oil and gas operators, has adequate road and emergency services provisions, integrates meaningful tribal consultation, protects cultural, archeological, recreational and wildlife areas; and much more.
In late 2017, the county appeared to lean heavily in favor of voting for a bad oil and gas ordinance.
How was this ordinance drafted?
In late August 2017, the Planning and Zoning Commission received an industry-written and friendly ordinance known as the ‘Stoddard Ordinance’, which had serious flaws. It called for drilling permits to be administered through permissive-use instead of special-use granting Planning and Zoning Director Mike Springfield sole authority to process and approve drilling permits within 10-days and eliminating the need for a public hearing or input. The ordinance also allowed for operational noise at higher levels than federal requirements, did not require water monitoring, imposed meager penalties on companies for violating laws, and allowed for wells to be drilled within 750 feet of schools, churches, hospitals, and houses.
The Planning and Zoning Commission voted for and recommended the Stoddard Ordinance to the County Commission for consideration. However, in a surprise outcome at the December 14, 2017, County Commission meeting, the Stoddard Ordinance was voted down 4 – 1 vote.
In March 2018, the County Commission voted 4 – 1 to have a citizens working group (CWG) comprised of 11-voting members to develop an oil and gas ordinance that ensures aquifer source water, groundwater, and surface water protection; as well as include maximum citizen input and meaningful tribal consultation. The Commission approved the CWG Charter and voted for the ordinance process to go back to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
However, there are now 2 separate citizens working groups drafting an ordinance. One is the CWG Science Team, co-led by Planning and Zoning Commissioner Peter Adang and former Planning and Zoning chair John Arango, and the other is the CWG Ordinance Team, co-led by Mary Feldblum with Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
Once the County Commission officially receives a recommended draft, they too will hold public hearings and receive written and spoken comments, then vote to adopt an ordinance. But in a surprise turn of events at the November 29th meeting, the commission tabled the oil and gas ordinance issue for the year.
The county still needs an ordinance to protect against abuses and liabilities from companies that want to drill in Sandoval County.
Update 11/29/2018 – Nearly 200 people attended the Sandoval County Commission meeting on Nov. 29 expecting the commission to adopt an oil and gas ordinance that had serious flaws. By the time the agenda item to discuss oil and gas came up at the meeting, the commission did not have the second vote needed to advance the motion, which prevented a final vote. Since the motion failed, Chairman David Heil tabled the oil and gas ordinance for the year. For now, the process of applying for drilling permits reverts to the current “special use” permitting under the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Any drilling application received by the county must go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for a public hearing and input. Then the Planning and Zoning Commission must make recommendations to the County Commission, where the application is subject to another public hearing and input before a decision is made by the County Commission.
Update 9/26/2018 – At the Aug. 28th Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, the commissioners voted on a motion to recommend 3 oil and gas ordinances to the County Commission at the Sept. 25 P&Z meeting–the CWG Science Ordinance, the CWG Ordinance Team, and the Block Ordinance. In a surprise turn of events, the ‘Baseline Ordinance’ that was never voted on, passed a 4-2 recommendation vote to the County Commission. This ordinance was slipped in. The Commission also voted for the CWG Science Ordinance and decided not to recommend the ordinance by the CWG Ordinance Team, or County Commissioner Jay Block’s ordinance known called the Block Ordinance.
Update 8/21/2018 – In addition to the 2 ordinances drafted by the CWG Science Team and CWG Ordinance Team, there are 3 other ordinances, including one introduced by County Commissioner Jay Block. The most egregious aspect of these additional draft ordinances is the lack of public hearings when an oil and gas company applies for a permit, known as permissive-use. This means one sole staffer has the authority to approve drilling permits without Planning and Zoning Commission or County Commission oversight and without public or tribal input.
Update 7/12/2018 – The Sandoval County Commission held a joint work session with the Planning and Zoning Commission where the results of the New Mexico Tech Assessment were presented. The findings indicate that areas in the Albuquerque Basin are at higher risk and susceptibility for water contamination from fracking. The CWG Science Team presented its ordinance which divides the county into districts. The CWG Ordinance Team presented updates and Thrust Energy was allowed to have their geologist and hydrologist present their report which contradicted some of the science from New Mexico Tech and Don Phillips.
The Baseline Ordinance has serious flaws
The Baseline Ordinance, which is a revamped version of the Stoddard Ordinance, does not adequately offer aquifer protection, public health safeguards, and is absent of tribal consultation. It is extremely vague and divides the county into eastern and western areas with different permit approval processes. It allows for Planning and Zoning Director Mike Springfield to administer drilling permits on a ‘permissive use’ basis in the western part of the county that covers the San Juan Basin and is largely where rural and tribal communities live. Additionally, the Baseline Ordinance is absent of hazardous waste disposal requirements, does not require environmental compliance history information from oil and gas operators, allows drilling within 1,000 feet of sacred and cultural sites, and allows fracking throughout the entire county despite evidence and science that shows there are areas in the Albuquerque Basin that are highly susceptible to groundwater contamination.
Actions you can take
- Contact your County Commissioner
- Attend public meetings
- Comment at public meetings
- Email comments to PublicComment@sandovalcountynm.gov
- Write a letter to the editor
The process for extracting oil and natural gas from shale rock uses an advanced technology called horizontal fracking (fracking), which combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing. A single well can be drilled to depths of up to 2-miles or more, requires millions of gallons of water, and uses hundreds of chemicals to make operational. Visit the links below for more information about the issues and impacts of fracking:
Fracking Threats to the Albuquerque Basin Aquifer (Donald Phillips Presentation)
Hydraulic Fracturing 101 (Earthworks)
The Social Costs of Fracking Report: A Pennsylvania Case Study (Food and Water Watch)
The Urgent Case for Ban on Fracking (Food and Water Watch)
Letters of support
Send a copy of your letters to Miya King-Flaherty