Commentary on the Mora County Ordinance Banning Oil and Gas Development

By KAY MATTHEWS

Mora Valley from Holman Hill. www.flickr.com photo
Mora Valley from Holman Hill. http://www.flickr.com photo

As I reported in La Jicarita on May 7, the Mora County Commission banned oil and gas development in an ordinance called “Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance.” While this is a bold move, its passage was not necessarily welcomed by those within the community who also want to protect Mora County’s land, water, and culture but by means of a different strategy.

Some community members in Mora and San Miguel counties would like to see a “belt and suspenders” approach that combines long and short term strategies, which include regulations and site specific banning so that if one component is struck down by the legal system there is a backup in place to protect both counties. La Jicarita will run a more detailed article concerning these efforts in the coming weeks.

For now, I would like to take a look at how the passage of the Mora County ordinance raises issues that are not new to the politics of el norte: the disconnect between those who work on an issue that has global significance and those who work on the same issue within a specific location and constituency. While their goal in this case is ultimately the same—to safeguard lives and resources by transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy—how to get there is often fraught with difficulty and conflict. The situation often deteriorates into a perception, real or not, of “outsiders” trying to dictate to “locals”, when both should be sharing ideas and knowledge that are part of each other’s worlds.

In the Mora case the perceived “outsider” is the non-profit group Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) based in Pennsylvania, an organization that works to ban factory farms and oil and gas development, particularly that of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. CELDF provided a “Bill of Rights” template for the Mora ordinance and consulted with the commission chair on all of the wording included in the final version. CELDF works in a national arena and sees itself as taking the high road, a radical approach to social change that asserts the “rights” of communities and ecosystems and works towards “federal constitutional change.” In a speech by CELDF executive director Thomas Linzey given at a Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon at Eugene he states: “It all comes down to what our theory of social change is. Can we be obedient folks petitioning our legislatures to do the right thing for us, or is it time to take back our own control and do it ourselves, no matter what the cost.”

Movements are made by those who “take back control”, but who is included in the movement is crucial. In the same speech Linzey says, “ The regulatory approach, due to its complexities and details, limits the number of people that actually get involved in this.” This assumption implies that the promulgation of a “Bill Rights” ordinance is the result of a democratic movement. In actuality, long before the CELDF’s “Bill of Rights” template was considered by the county commission, a groundswell of people in Mora and San Miguel counties had been organizing for years to educate the public, form relationships with elected officials and county staff, and partner with other county organizations who are working on the same issues or have already passed tougher regulations.  They were surprised at how quickly the commission passed the ban after a two-year moratorium on oil and gas development spent researching and discussing a regulatory ordinance. The question of whether CEDLF’s approach can be effective and what the political ramifications may be cannot be separated from the work of those on the ground.

I’ve seen this kind of disconnect happen before in northern New Mexico. A more extreme but in some ways comparable situation arose in the 1990s during the battles over protection of the Mexican spotted owl and access to forest resources. The urban environmentalists kept saying, we are on the same side as the local Hispanos because we’re both fighting the Forest Service to protect our forest lands. But the enviros failed, over and over again, to take into account the ramifications of their policies on the communities and folks trying to figure out how to maintain their resources and livelihoods. It was impossible to find common ground when the enviros’ ultimate goal was tied into the national agenda of Zero Cut, or no commercial logging on public lands.

Inherent in this kind of positioning that imposes an overarching agenda upon a community is the concept that people are expendable in the quest for the “larger good.” In the speech Linzey also says: “There are real consequences to all this stuff. When we get called in as counsel for municipalities, we give them the worst case scenario. You could get sued, could go bankrupt. This is very serious work that these municipalities are taking on, that these elected officials are taking on.” While I don’t equate Thomas Linzey with the likes of those who ran Forest Guardians and Forest Conservation Council back in the day, when he deems Mora County a ‘sacrifice zone’— not, ironically, of the oil and gas industry but because “you could get sued, could go bankrupt”— you have to question the approach. While the issue of employment is not so much at stake, there is the fact that oil leases on state lands fund education in New Mexico, which will no doubt be used against the Ordinance by the industry, both locally and statewide.  And the costs of defending the Ordinance, if it is challenged legally, which is very likely, will burden an already poor county.

The CELDF website lists Ocate resident Kathleen Dudley on their staff as their New Mexico “community organizer,” which, according to many of those who have been active in this issue, is another example of CELDF’s lack of on the ground knowledge of community conditions. Dudley’s “my way or the highway” activism has exacerbated the division over strategies. She has been the main proponent of the “Bill of Rights” concept in both Mora County and the city of Las Vegas; like the county, the city had previously enacted a two-year moratorium on issuing permits for oil, gas, and geothermal drilling, exploration and extraction within the city limits. Dudley and other “Bill of Rights” proponents were able to convince members of the city council to adopt an ordinance banning oil and gas development once the moratorium expired. The mayor of the city, who had been instrumental in enacting the moratorium, requested that some of the language in the Bill of Rights Ordinance be deleted, specifically the reference to the “sovereignty” of the people of the city and their right to “separate” from other local governments if the ordinance is preempted. These were the same objections raised by county commissioner Paula Garcia in Mora who voted against the ordinance, believing this language makes the county more susceptible to legal challenge. Dudley and the CELDF proponents came to a Las Vegas City Council meeting where the mayor proposed renewing the moratorium and demanded that he “Sign” or “Resign”; when he refused to sign the ordinance without the word changes they initiated his recall. Many felt this was unfair to a government official who was clearly opposed to oil and gas development and ultimately played into the hands of an industry happy to see internecine conflict within the community.

These “Bill of Rights” documents are making the rounds in northern New Mexico. I met with folks in Taos, where there is so far no threat of gas and oil development, and they were talking about using the document to more generally protect water resources, or, as the document states in its “Statements of Law” section, the “Rights of the Sacred Earth.” When white folks use this kind of language I get a little uneasy. Too often the framing of the environmental battles in the 90s used the same biocentric language: who speaks for nature, are humans part of nature, or is nature set apart from human activity, i.e., environmentalism sin gente? Those who spoke for the interdependence of people and resources and the rights of land based communities to make decisions based on their livelihood needs—timber, thinning, and firewood contracts, grazing and acequia rights—were demonized by the enviros as dupes of the industry. The folks in Mora and San Miguel counties, who recognize that because of the legal, financial (including the issue of those who decide to lease their land because of the income it will generate), and political ramifications of an outright ban on oil and gas development, there are other strategies—strengthened regulations, zoning, land use planning, and site specific bans—that can protect water, agricultural, and cultural resources.

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3 comments

  1. Holy Moly, what a tangled tale. Too much of what I just read has set my nerves on end. I have the inclination to write an essay on the commentary I just read. However, it would take unavailable time to express what needs to be said. Therefore, as a brief comment, I recently journeyed the length and breadth of the North American continent. It is time we collectively take our Northeastern New Mexican consciousness of “we are” and “they are not” – outsiders, insiders, transplants, implants and eggplants – and arise to the challenge of working together as a global community to salvage a future for our children. Mother Earth does not belong to “you” or to “me” but is “our” home. If it is that what appears to be extreme measures are necessary to take to care of Her, then bring it on because we are all in deep, deep, deep trouble. Upon returning to the extreme drought conditions that have engulfed this region, having been repeatedly shocked to the core by the New Mexican populace caught in the extremes of a very poor educational system and lack of global awareness – that is another terrible tale – this latest article is an embarrassment to the efforts of Everyone attempting to do for the best. From long and many very painful experiences resulting in disasters across the board, this/these ordinances based on our fundamental right to govern ourselves are glorious and magnificent. Regulation of the most powerful and destructive corporations – or any of these greedy unconscious slimy forked tongues – that lie as beautifully as a great opera tenor can sing – is impossible.

    • Irene,
      I agree with you that there is no more important struggle than the one were forced to wage against corporate control of natural resources. And I think Kay agrees with this too. So I think you’re ignoring her intervention here, which is that the character of that struggle and the local politics of that struggle have everything to do with the kinds of outcomes we can expect. These are global struggles expressed through locally articulated histories, geographies and ecologies. If we ignore that local specificity, we’re doomed to fail in this struggle.
      David Correia

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