In Sandoval County, the people won

OUR VIEW  Repost from the Santa Fe New Mexican
  • The New Mexican

A moment, please, to praise the resistance. Not just the many citizens who are speaking out against a tax “reform” bill that rewards the rich and will punish the less affluent, or the people who successfully helped shame three ill-qualified nominees for federal judge into being withdrawn, or the many who have taken to the streets this year to protest injustice and inequality.

Yes, let’s praise the citizens of nearby Sandoval County, whose resistance to an overly generous ordinance on drilling for oil and gas successfully stopped the county commissioners in their tracks.

Because the diverse citizens of the county next door came together, their land, water, and air will be safer. Longtime traditional residents, ranchers, outdoors lovers, urban dwellers and affluent inhabitants of bedroom communities all joined together to tell the commission to stop.

What had seemed like a sure thing — an ordinance to regulate drilling that gave away too much to the oil and gas industry — is now stalled. Last week, commissioners voted basically to start over. They killed the controversial oil and gas ordinance, overwhelmed by united resistance from citizens who said the proposal did not protect water or the environment and, importantly, limited public input in terms of future development projects.

Come January, the commission likely will vote to ask its Planning and Zoning Commission to take the proposal, overhaul it — and consult all interested parties this time around. The current proposal, for example, did not seek the opinions of nearby pueblos, an essential step in passing ordinances that affect tribal communities.

The intent of the commission was worthy; federal and state regulations govern oil and gas operations in New Mexico, but counties can institute their own regulations as well. Santa Fe County has a strong ordinance, but Sandoval County lacks drilling rules. That raised concerns in 2015 when a company wanted to drill in the city of Rio Rancho. Residents asked their leaders to put together an ordinance regulating oil and gas exploration. County officials got to work, producing a document that many residents did not like. A vote on the measure was delayed last month, and last week, it died at a meeting that started as a discussion of the ordinance and possible amendments.

Public pressure made the difference. Citizens showed up, called their commissioners, made signs, protested peacefully and otherwise let their local elected officials know that they would not accept the ordinance as written. The citizens won.

Commissioners won, too, because they showed an ability to listen to their constituents — they didn’t just plow ahead regardless of public opinion, as is happening in Washington, D.C., on a regular basis. Only District 3 Commission Chairman Don Chapman supported both versions of the ordinance. To him, some regulation at the county level is better than none, saying, “I would rather have something rather than nothing.”

The “something” in the original included a 750-foot buffer zone between a drilling site and any homes, schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals and water supplies. There were requirements for companies to submit road and emergency response plans to the county and guidelines on light and sound generated by a project. However, as opponents pointed out, the measure lacked adequate safeguards to protect water from contamination, preserve historical communities and prevent environmental damage.

In other words, more work needs to be done. By listening, Sandoval County Commissioners showed they understood that the people who elected them want sensible regulation that also protects their communities. We’re betting the people of Sandoval County won’t accept anything less.