Status quo reigns in New Mexico

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, "Colliding forces."

AZTEC, N.M. - Five miles below the Colorado border in Aztec, N.M., green-painted pumpjacks and oil wells line the highways like sentinels. Many residents of this town of fewer than 6,000 people say they worry about poor air quality, noise and water pollution caused by methane wells. But this area has not attracted the amount of real estate development that has hit Colorado's methane fields, so the energy companies remain in control.

Larry Rhodes, a rancher and ex-gas company employee who has lived here all his life, says his complaints about oil and gas development are dwarfed by the industry's clout. His problems began in June 1998, when a gas well was drilled 100 yards from his home. Since then, he says, his life has been a living hell because of the well's incessant noise.

"I would like to sleep at night," says Rhodes, holding his head in his hands. "I would like to keep my sanity."

Rhodes says he's tried to form a grassroots group to rein in the gas and oil companies, but he always runs into the same problem: His neighbors fear losing their jobs at gas companies. "I've had a lot of people say, 'I'm behind you, Larry, but I can't say anything.' "

Currently, New Mexico gas companies can drill one gas well every 80 acres. Charlie Perrin, a field inspector for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Commission, says that if residents want reform, they should convince the Legislature to change the laws regulating the industry. Critics say that's a long shot.

"What I hear most often from people is, 'I've given up calling the Oil and Gas Commission (because) they don't do anything,' "says Chris Shuey, an Albuquerque-based activist who used to live in northern New Mexico. "It's public acceptance of a bad situation, and so the Legislature doesn't hear from the aggrieved public; they only hear from the industry." Shuey started lobbying the Oil and Gas Commission on behalf of landowners in 1981. Now, he says, he's burned out. "Up in Colorado there's a lot more ankle-biting of the industry ... we don't know what the word environmental is around here."

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