As oil and gas companies sink more drills into Western soil, landowners often find themselves at the mercy of corporations and industry-friendly federal law. Citizens of Santa Fe County, N.M., however, are pushing the limits of local control and demanding a seat at the table.
In Galisteo Basin,
south of tony Santa Fe, ranchers and blue-collar laborers share
fences with second-home owners and transplanted professionals. But
when it comes to energy development, these New West neighbors have
found a common voice. To what local reports call “thunderous
applause,” Santa Fe County commissioners enacted a one-year
drilling moratorium in February. The ban will keep drills out of
the basin while the county researches the impacts of energy
The county lacks oil and gas policies, says
county spokesman Stephen Ulibarri, so it will use this research to
draft rules for environmental and archaeological protection. The
basin, which is rich in the remains of the Tano Puebloan culture,
is one of the largest archaeological sites in the American
Southwest, according to local researcher James Snead.
moratorium raises the question: In a decades-old clash that has
historically favored mineral owners over landowners, does Santa Fe
County have any weight to throw around?
ignited the controversy when it announced plans to drill in the
Galisteo Basin last fall. The Texas-based oil company has already
leased mineral rights. Now, however, it needs permits to occupy the
land with its infrastructure: the trucks, tractors, equipment and
people necessary to get the fuel out. And in the basin, where most
land is private, that permission has to come from the county.
“Companies need a permit from the county to make
sure they comply with county land-use regulations,” says Gwen
Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
“That way the county can say, ‘What’s your plan,
Tecton, for protecting water resources?’ ” And if the
county’s regulations — on air and water protection, for
example — are more stringent than state and federal rules,
industry would have to respect that, she says.
state’s Oil Conservation Division is the final authority on
oil and gas exploration, says Tony Herrell, the Bureau of Land
Management’s deputy director for minerals in New Mexico. The
oil division has the power to overrule the county, but a direct
conflict of interest is unlikely because the two entities manage
different aspects of energy development, says Bruce Frederick, a
lawyer with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. The division
can regulate environmental impacts, but it typically focuses on an
operation’s efficiency: well spacing and underground well
pressure, for example. The county, on the other hand, decides how
drilling should be done to protect its local resources, lands and
Tecton may challenge the ban, according to
spokeswoman Melissa Walters. “We’re looking to see if
there is a legal path to counter the county’s
Legal battles over drilling in many
other counties have largely favored local authority, says Lachelt.
Her home county, La Plata, in southwest Colorado, has been
challenged twice by industry over its oil and gas regulation. The
county won both suits in the Colorado Supreme Court.
“Industry hates local regulation,” says Lachelt.
“They absolutely hate it.” Because the oil and gas
industry has strong support in New Mexico, Lachelt says she
wouldn’t be surprised to see industry-supported legislation
proposed next session to limit county authority.
land-use control in the Galisteo Basin remains in a grey zone, one
thing is unmistakable. Without strong public involvement and
organization, Santa Fe County would have no muscle to flex against
the oil and gas industry. “What’s really interesting
about this is the human behavior,” says Herrell.
“There’s a very high emotional level among the people
in this area.” Among New Mexico’s counties, Santa Fe
County’s tourism-based economy and high property values also
set it apart. “It’s the capital and it’s the
state’s cultural center, if you will,” says Lachelt,
“so they’re more likely to push the envelope in terms
of what authority they have.”
is an intern with High Country News.