The man behind a New Mexico county's fracking ban

Last year Mora became the first county in the nation to permanently ban oil and gas development.

  • John Olívas led Mora County, New Mexico's effort to be the first county in the country to ban fracking. Private landowners and energy companies are contesting the ban in court; Olívas lost a June primary for his county commission seat.

    Eddie Moore/ © Albuquerque Journal

On a raw, bright winter day, John Olívas and his wife, Pam, hold court at the Hatchas Café in Mora, New Mexico. They seem to know everybody who comes in, chatting as they stamp snow off their boots and find seats. The street is lined with crumbling adobes and rusty pickups, and snowpacked pastures dotted with livestock and unused farm equipment stretch toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There's not a fast food drive-through or big-box store in sight.

Olívas, a lean and youthful 43, is a longtime hunting guide and more recent wilderness advocate who was elected to the Mora County Commission in 2010. He lives in the house his great-grandparents built 200 years ago; his family was among the original settlers of the Mora Land Grant in 1835, when it was still part of Mexico. By local standards, that's not very long ago; many residents still speak the archaic Spanish that the original settlers brought to these mountain villages in the early 1600s.

When I sit at his table, Olívas launches without preamble into a tirade against hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which involves shooting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand deep underground to release oil or natural gas trapped in layers of rock. He worries that fracking and other aspects of oil and gas development will use too much water and pollute the other resources that this agrarian Indo-Hispano community needs. "We grow our own food. We burn our own wood," he explains. "People come to Mora for the landscape and the clean water and the clean air."

In April 2013, Olívas – modest and soft-spoken but ready for a fight – led the charge to make his county the first in the U.S. to permanently ban corporations from fracking or otherwise developing oil and gas within its borders. "A lot of people asked, ‘Who in the heck is this small community up in northern New Mexico that's picking a fight with oil and gas?' " he says. As a matter of survival, local people have always prioritized conservation, and they resent outside corporations making money at their expense, he notes. During six months of meetings, residents made clear that they want to protect their land-based heritage. "If you allow industry to come into your community, it changes the dynamics of the culture. I don't think we're ready for that."

Though Olívas acknowledges being "a product of industry" (his folks worked in uranium mines in Grants, across the state), childhood summers with his grandparents gave him a strong connection to Mora. "I used to spend hours out at the Mora River or the pond with my brother. My fondest memory is lassoing suckers." As a teen, after moving permanently to Mora, he went bow-hunting for elk alone in the peaks of the Pecos Wilderness. "That's where I think I got into the naturalist part of me. You'd go up there and you'd build a fire, you'd have to get wood, you'd have to do all the essentials of life."

Olívas built a successful career as a hunting guide and eventually got a master's in environmental science. But he never considered himself an environmentalist, largely because in a state that is one-half Latino, its green movement is overwhelmingly white. In the late '90s, environmental activists often came off as villains in racially charged fights over public-lands grazing and community access to firewood. Some were hanged in effigy at the State Capitol.

That tension has subsided, but Olívas, who joined the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance as a community organizer in 2008, is still often the only Chicano in the room. He serves as a bridge to build support for land-protection efforts, such as the recently designated Río Grande del Norte National Monument, making significant inroads with centuries-old farming and ranching land-grant communities, while fostering deeper respect for the local land ethic among urban, largely white environmental groups. As the father of four, he's proud that "those landscapes will be protected for my grandchildren and their grandchildren."

Where Mora's fracking ban is concerned, the work is just beginning:  Four private landowners backed by oil and gas interests sued last November, followed by a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell in January, alleging violation of their constitutional rights. "We knew we were going to get sued," Olívas says, then repeats it with relish. Mora County plans to fight, with help from the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Given opponents' deeper pockets, that could mean five to seven years of wrangling, and the creation of some legal precedents. However it ends, he says, "I definitely think we left our mark on the world." Other communities that have adopted similar measures – Las Vegas, New Mexico, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and more – are watching.

Olívas remains surprisingly calm. "I'm not losing any sleep," he says, finishing his coffee. Still, I sense he'd rather be hunting in the mountains he loves.

Marvin Feil
Marvin Feil
Jun 23, 2014 08:06 PM
Best of Luck.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jun 24, 2014 02:17 PM
Sooner or later, the real environmental cost of fracking will put a stop to the practice. It's up to us to push back against the profiteers who ransack the land and leave the damage behind. The government, no matter who occupies the White House, has been unable to hear the voices of those harmed by fracking. How best to clear their ears?
Joan Harvey
Joan Harvey
Jun 24, 2014 03:44 PM
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund mentioned above has been instrumental in working legally to protect the rights of communities to fight fracking. New Mexico Environmental Law Center is also a great group, and both of them deserve all the support you can give.
Evan Ravitz
Evan Ravitz
Jun 24, 2014 05:13 PM
In Colorado, at least 5 cities have banned fracking using ballot initiatives or referendums.
Dennis Sumrak
Dennis Sumrak
Jun 24, 2014 05:22 PM
Before a drilling company can begin work on private property it must secure mineral rights and permission to drill from the property owner. This involves a sum of money paid up front and a signed contract. If the fracking is banned will the property owners have to repay any money they have received?
Joan Harvey
Joan Harvey
Jun 24, 2014 08:16 PM
@Evan -- CEDLF has been instrumental in many of the CO cases, giving guidance to help draft initiatives. But Mora NM was the first.
Robert Krantz
Robert Krantz Subscriber
Jun 25, 2014 10:24 AM
Sorry, but however noble the motivations, this strikes me as essentially a NIMBY position. I would challenge Mr. Olivas and his compatriots to do without the resources the feel compelled to ban, unless they feel fine letting others take on associated risks and costs.
Bruce Vojtecky
Bruce Vojtecky Subscriber
Jun 26, 2014 09:10 AM
I respect Mr. Olivas choice to ban fracking from his area. But on the other side of the coin in areas like Wyoming that derives much money from fossil fuel activities the enviromentalist should respect our choice to prefer jobs.
The latest EPA emmissions rules, as verfied in the Wyoming Tribune-eagle, has given Wyoming the lowest percentage, 19%, for pollution controls on electric plants. They say that this is because 90% of the electricity produced in Wyoming comes from coal plants and two thirds of that electricity goes out of state.
As electric cars become more common place the need for more electricity will expand. Risky Business, the Bloomberg report, stated that due to global warming raising tempertures more electricity will be needed to produce that energy. They estimated that to meet that need there would have to be the equivalent of 200 coal or natural gas plants built in the next 5 to 25 years.
In Colorado the cities were perfectly happy to use the oil and money from fracking when it was out on the eastern plains. Now that it is moving closer to the cities they are upset. Fort Collins didn't pass the fracking ban. In Greely a fracking company was going to drill close to a school, they were legally far enough from the school to do so, but because of objections from school parents the oil company moved further away on their own.
In Wyoming baseline testing has been required for the fracking companies. We'll see how well that goes.
In the latest American Lung Association five of Wyoming's counties were in the top twenty cleanest air counties in the nation and Cheyenne was the number 2 cleanest air city. Fossil fuel extraction can be done in a responsible way. We get more pollution from the frontrange cities than we produce.
Marleny Alfaro
Marleny Alfaro
Jun 26, 2014 11:56 PM
Robert Krantz: Mora is now moving into a solar and wind production phase. In fact, the most prominent gas provider in town, Pacheco Gas and Oil,is one of the strongest advocates for this community ordinance that protects our soil and water. There is much to do still, and no easy way of getting it done, but the road to a more sustainable way of life is being laid out at this very moment in this tiny county with big guts. We would like the freedom to make money, or other form of capital, in a clean, honest way. Wish us luck!
Marleny Alfaro
Marleny Alfaro
Jun 27, 2014 12:00 AM
I thought you folks might like this:
Germany can now produce half its energy from solar
Good news: Germany produced a record 50.6 percent of its energy with solar panels in the first two weeks of June.
Image: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock
New data reveals that Germany broke a record at the start of June by generating half its energy from solar power, demonstrating the country's impressive renewable energy capabilities.
Research from the Fraunhofer ISE research institute showed that German solar panels generated a record 24.24 GW of electricity between 1pm and 2pm on Friday, June 6th. And on Monday June 9th, a public holiday, solar power production peaked at 23.1 GW, which was 50.6 percent of total electricity demand.
Tobias Rothacher, an expert for renewable energies at Germany Trade & Invest, told The Local: “I think we could break a new record every two to three months now. We are installing more and more PVs [solar panels].”
Germany has had success with solar by encouraging citizens to install panels on their roof tops, rather than focussing on building large-scale solar farms. In fact, 90 percent of Germany's solar panels are on individuals' roofs.
Good weather has also helped solar power production this year, which has increased 34 percent in the first part of 2014.
With the current rate of production, Germany will need to invest in more energy storage technology to keep up.
In comparison, Australia has the potential to generate just 1.1 percent of its electrical energy from solar. The United States gets 0.2 percent of its energy from solar, according to 2011 data.
Beau Kiklis
Beau Kiklis
Jun 27, 2014 04:12 PM
Violation of constitutional rights? How about the right to clean water? Clean air?