With the Sandoval County Commission chambers already full, more than two hundred people interested in the proposed Oil and Gas Ordinance settled for watching on a big-screen TV in the building lobby. Some were able to enter the meeting later.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven 



~Bill Diven Sandoval Signpost 

A proposed county zoning ordinance for permitting oil and gas drilling continues to advance with the addition of public-hearing requirements for wells planned in some in rural communities.

That, and a second amendment came during a seven-hour Sandoval County Commission meeting on November 16. Amending the draft ordinance requires a new round of public notice delaying final action until at least early January.

The hot-button proposal packed the 112-seat commission chamber with industry representatives, tribal leaders and members, and county residents. With the chamber filled to fire-code capacity, more than two hundred people were relegated to the lobby of the county administration building where a big-screen TV had been set up.

A squad of sheriff’s deputies monitored the entrance to the third-floor chambers and the stairs and elevator on the ground floor.

Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes of Placitas attempted to table the ordinance until New Mexico Tech can finish its assessment of oil and gas resources relative to potential sources of ground water in the county. His motion drew raucous applause but only one other vote, that from Commissioner Kenneth Eichwald of Cuba, the sole Democrat on the five-member body.

The $62,000 project began in July with the final report not expected until May. The county has contracted NM Tech as a consultant on developing the zoning ordinance that would apply only to surface issues on private lands outside municipalities.

Geology underlying the county was one recurring theme during the meeting. Speakers focused on the difference between the northwest, which includes part of the San Juan Basin with its history of oil and gas production, and the southeast, which includes part of metro Albuquerque where 800,000 residents rely in large part on ground water.

While the geology of the northwest is relatively simple, the southeast also includes the Rio Grande Rift, one of the few rift valleys in the world visible on land. Here the earth’s surface is slowly pulling apart fracturing subsurface layers from Colorado into Mexico.

“Not taking into account the geology is a big problem,” said professional geologist William Brown of Placitas. The faulting along the rift increases the potential for drilling into a petroleum-bearing layer on one side of a fault line affecting a water-bearing layer directly opposite on the other side, he said.

“Placitas is the area that probably has the greatest potential for contamination,” Brown told commissioners. “There’s a huge number of faults in the Placitas area. It’s so complex that you can’t go up there and do horizontal fracking.”

Brown recommended dividing the county into zones with more stringent permit requirements including public hearings for sensitive areas.

An amendment by Commissioner David Heil of Rio Rancho accomplished some of that. As written, the proposed ordinance makes oil and gas development a permissive use requiring only approval by the county planning director once certain requirements are met.

Heil’s amendment, which passed 4-1, would make such development a conditional use in areas already designated in the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance as community districts and overlay zones. Those 11 areas already have extra and varying zoning protections and include most of Placitas plus Algodones, Rio Rancho Estates, La Cueva, and the Jemez Valley corridor including San Ysidro.

Under conditional use, a drilling applicant would need to meet the same requirements for a permit, but instead of the zoning director making the decision, approval would be up to the Planning and Zoning Commission after a public hearing. Commissioner Jay Block voted no after saying people in all areas of the county should be treated equally.

Jim Manatt, president of Thrust Energy of Roswell, one of two companies leasing 55,000 acres west of Rio Rancho for energy development, also criticized the separate treatment. “My opinion is this transgresses the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all, and a host of lower laws and court findings,” he said.

Commissioners also approved a second Heil amendment requiring the county attorney to review the zoning director’s permissive-use decisions before a drilling permit is issued. “In my mind it dealt with the issue of not having a single person approve the application,” Heil said.

During the meeting, pueblo governors, representatives of the Navajo Nation, and various organizations, as well as numerous tribal members, criticized the lack of consultation with tribal governments in developing the ordinance. Some took offense at the governors of sovereign nations being limited to speaking during the public-comment period.

“We have to base this on honest, open respectful communication,” said Gov. Robert Coríz of Santo Domingo Pueblo. “I have not had consultation… When people of color stand up for rights, justice, respect, what happens? We’re given one minute, we’re given three minutes, when we’ve been here a long time.”

Other speakers invoked both a state law requiring government-to-government consultation with tribes and the American Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. While the state law appears only to apply to state agencies, not county governments, the declaration calls for good-faith cooperation and consultation on legislative matters that may affect indigenous peoples.

The U.S., as a member of the Organization of American States, joined 34 other nations in approving the declaration in June of 2016.

Alicia Ortega, executive director of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said: “We will stand up for our past, present, and future. Our pueblos have been here long before you came and we will be here long after you are gone. And we’ll be damned if we allow gas and oil to come in, pollute our lands, contaminate our water, and destroy our sacred sites. We will not allow history to repeat itself… Understand that we come from culturally driven communities, not capitalistic-driven colonialism. Ignore us and expect resistance.”

Commissioners and the county planning staff have cited state and federal laws regulating oil and gas development as protecting the environment and Native American interests. Those laws limit the power of the county to prepare a broader ordinance, they said.

On December 14 commissioners, at their one meeting for the month, are expected to vote on publishing the ordinance. That triggers a 15-day public-notice period making the January 4 meeting the earliest commissioners could take action on the ordinance itself.

Video of the December meeting of the Sandoval County Commission is available on the Sandoval County website. Go to and click on Meeting Videos, then select a video from the archives. Commission meetings are also streamed live.