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Guarding Galisteo

  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 extraction.

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.

The 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?

Tecton Energy 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.

The 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 community.

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 moratorium.”

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.

Even as 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.”

The author is an intern with High Country News.