Jul 17, 2018

Chris White | Energy Reporter | July 7, 2018

Environmentalists in a small New Mexico county are ratcheting up the rhetoric against local fracking ordinances as government officials fear the fight is taking on new and terrifying dimensions.

Members of the state’s Sandoval County commission claim activists are haranguing them for contemplating rules permitting gas extraction. Documents also show activists are pressuring commissioners to block industry representatives from discussing future ordinances on natural gas production.

“We got blasted by the public about being racists and baby killers,” Jay Block, one of the commission’s two Republicans, told The Daily Caller News Foundation, referring to insults people hurled at him during debates about gas exploration in the county. Block is in an untenable position, stuck in between an animated anti-gas movement and concerns about the county’s economic well-being.

“The citizens are driving the narrative,” said Block, a conservative who worked for the Jack Kemp presidential campaign in 1987. “They are delivering misinformation to the public and not one time has the industry been invited,” he added, referring to the Citizens Watch Group (CWG), an activist group created after the commission voted down ordinances in 2017 following significant public outcry.

The proposed ordinance would have banned drilling and fracking within 750 feet from homes, schools, hospitals, and fresh water supplies. It also required areas to be fenced and that operators provide certificates showing they have safe water use agreements. Any violations would result in a $300 fine.

Such gas exploration is regulated at the state level in New Mexico, but Sandoval lacks rules governing fracking on unincorporated land within the county. Companies have tapped into wells in the Permian Basin in Southeast New Mexico and the San Juan Basin in the northwest part of the state for several decades. Any new ordinance would apply to areas not traditionally explored.

Commissioners mishandled the initial plan, along with a second ordinance that shared similarities with the original, Block said, leading activists to push back on future measures. Opponents of the ordinance have made significant headway rallying support for their side.

Local activists are lobbying the Democratic-heavy commission to keep gas industry representatives from discussions about future ordinances, according to emails advocacy group Power the Future obtained in June through public records requests.

Activist Mary Feldblum flooded commissioners’ email boxes with messages promoting writer Donald Phillips as an expert who understands the alleged negative health effects associated with drilling. Feldblum and Phillips argue that an ordinance allowing fracking in the Southeast section of Sandoval risks poisoning drinking water.

“Don and I think it should be a representative group of Sandoval residents,” Feldblum wrote to Block and Phillips in an email dated Jan. 15, 2018. She also sought advice in the emails from James Holden-Rhodes, an opponent of the oil and gas industry and one of the commission’s three Democrats.

Holden-Rhodes did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for an interview about his relationship with Feldblum or whether industry representatives should be consulted on any ordinances.

Power the Future has been propping up billboards across the county campaigning against what the group considers a coordinated effort to destroy the oil and gas industry. Energy advocates believe that failing to enact an ordinance could create ripple effects for a state heavily dependent on oil and gas.

State revenue collections for the budget year that ends in July were up through March by $582.1 million – or 14.5 percent – from a year ago, according to a tracking report released this week by the Legislative Finance Committee.

Roughly 70 percent of the revenue increase is due to the surge in oil production in southeastern New Mexico, the LFC reported. As of March, there were 88 active drilling rigs in the state, up from 47 rigs one year ago, according to the LFC report.

Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) show a record 172 million barrels of oil were produced in 2017, which is double New Mexico’s output in 2011 and tops the 147 million barrels set in 2015. Analysts believe the activist-led move is designed to revoke an oil company’s license to operate in New Mexico.

Pressuring the commission on ending a slew of ordinances on fracking is akin to banning companies from engaging in any gas exploration, according to Robert McEntyre of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

“It’s interesting that water has become the central issue in Sandoval County. We can’t find one case of ground water contamination because of fracking. That’s not evident anywhere in New Mexico,” McEntyre told TheDCNF. “It’s about making a point and sending a signal that Sandoval is not interested in oil and gas development.”

Research appears to support McEntyre’s position. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published in June 2017 it found no instances of water contamination from fracking in 116 wells across the energy-rich regions of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. The EPA published a five-year study in 2016 that found fracking was not causing widespread groundwater contamination.

Even studies supported by environmentalists have found no effect on water quality from fracking. A three-year study by the University of Cincinnati published in February found fracking couldn’t contaminate groundwater, even though it was paid for by environmentalists.

The agency acknowledged that it has no evidence that fracking has contaminated drinking water across the country. EPA’s new study removed a previous conclusion that the agency “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

EPA’s data doesn’t seem to be enough to placate activists, according to Don Chapman, Block’s fellow Republican on the Sandoval County commission.

“Most of the rhetoric that they bring is really based on emotion and not based on science. It’s how you end up in a situation like this,” Chapman, who helped introduced the initial ordinances, told TheDCNF. He and Block worry that failing to enact a fair ordinance in Sandoval could potentially lead to a wave of lawsuits and potentially paint parts of New Mexico as no-go zones for energy companies.

Most New Mexicans are too busy to dig deep down into the science surrounding natural gas extraction, Chapman noted.

“Officials might not know about this themselves, so they listen to different activists to make their decision. We spent a lot of time listening to industry to make our ordinance,” he said. Sandoval County is not the only local area dealing with this kind of pressure.

Cities in Colorado and Texas have also wrestled with similar tactics designed to make producing natural gas virtually impossible.

Colorado’s Supreme Court, for instance, struck down local government attempts to ban fracking in 2016. Federal courts in the state have previously agreed that only the state governments have the legal authority to regulate fracking, as any ban would be “preempted by state law and therefore, is invalid and unenforceable.”

Environmentalists attempted to get an initiative banning fracking across 90 percent of Colorado on the ballot in 2016, but activists failed to get the necessary signatures. The initiative would have cost the state $14.5 billion in lost economic output and 104,000 jobs, according to a study by economists at the University of Colorado.

Like New Mexico, gas exploration is a huge portion of Colorado’s economy. The oil and gas industry added $29.6 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2012, or about 10 percent of all annual economic activity in the state. Energy producers also supported 111,500 jobs, allowing the state to recover from the Great Recession faster than its neighbors.

Activists in Texas also led a charge on a fracking ban. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law in 2015 blocking local ordinances banning fracking after Denton voters approved the city’s ban. The state’s oil and gas industry opposed the ordinance, and eventually sued over the measure.

Reports suggest the shale boom, which began more than ten years ago, is having a dramatic effect on the Loan Star state.

Manufacturing output has increased 50 percent from 2009 to 2016 as oil companies capitalize on advancements in fracking technology. New technologies have also reduced costs for U.S. chemical companies by eight percent, according to a June report from Texas for Natural Gas, a group advocating natural gas production.

Texas shale-related manufacturing exports increased 68 percent between 2007 and 2017, the report also notes. New chemical manufacturing investment in Texas, meanwhile, is expected to support 182,000 permanent new jobs by 2025 and add nearly $14 billion in wages for Texas workers.

Natural gas has eased housing and property prices in the state as well. Residential electricity prices have fallen since 2008 by about 16 percent, almost directly proportional to a 17 percent increase in power generation from natural gas over the same time period, according to the EIA.

Sandoval County has not yet addressed the matter fully this year, but Chapman is not optimistic about any ordinance’s chances. “This is just a situation that will end up being a train wreck,” he said.