My Turn

Opinion: State commission bows to big oil, ignores public in Four Corners decision

By Dan A. Pritchard and Cristy Holden, Taos
Posted 11/30/18

Forty citizens attended a meeting on Nov. 19 of the New Mexico Oil Conservation Committee; three of us were from from Taos County. This was a continuance from a September meeting request by Hilcorp …

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My Turn

Opinion: State commission bows to big oil, ignores public in Four Corners decision

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Forty citizens attended a meeting on Nov. 19 of the New Mexico Oil Conservation Committee; three of us were from from Taos County. This was a continuance from a September meeting request by Hilcorp Oil Company to double the number of wells they own within the Four Corners/San Juan Basin.

Currently, they own 8,000 wells purchased from Conoco Phillips in 2017. The owner of this company is described as a Forbes $4 billionaire with a philosophy of rip and run, acquire and exploit, a known pollution-style driller, according to Texas publications.

What we saw in this hearing was deliberately shameful. The OCC took no responsibility for notifying other state agencies or citizen groups. The applicant, Hilcorp, was charged only with notifications to other oil/gas operators in the area and those within one mile of the location through newspaper postings in Rio Arriba and San Juan Counties only although the process of any drilling affects everyone in our state.

Attorneys for Hilcorp aggressively resisted any testimony by the witnesses offered by lawyers from the Western Environmental Law Center and the University of New Mexico Law Clinic, representing the San Juan Citizens Alliance. These witnesses, landowners adjacent to the oil fields, were denied the right to provide testimony of damage to their lands by existing wells because “they are not experts.” There are 40,000 wells in this area already.

Meanwhile the “expert” well engineer hired by Hilcorp focused her testimony on the money the state will receive in taxes and profits from the increased drilling. It was clearly an effort to “buy the resources” of our state, with no regard to public health or environment as amended to the mission of the OCC in 2006 – a complete failure of this committee to perform their function on behalf of citizens.

Public testimony was delayed until only watchful representatives of other oil companies remained late in the day. Even the representative from the legal department of the New Mexico State Land Office was refused the opportunity for testimony although that office never received notice of this hearing. San Juan Citizens Alliance was also denied “standing” for the same reason.

Most learned about this hearing six days prior. Documents regarding the application, the reason for this hearing, were not posted until late the Friday night before, in violation of open meeting rules, so no one, not the attorneys for San Juan Citizens Alliance or environmental groups, could see what the impact would be.

Both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators and a long list of elected officials within New Mexico urged a delay to allow sufficient review of documents and coordination of public testimony, but this was also denied by the committee. Obviously, this was a race to avoid oversight by the incoming SLO Commissioner.

The entire process was disgraceful, clearly led by attorneys for Hilcorp, who were deferred to consistently by the members of the OCC. Aubrey Dunn, outgoing SLO Commissioner, has stated the process of management of oil and gas leases is now a Wild West experiment: an “oil rush” without the needed oversight.

Ranchers and adjacent land owners are at a disadvantage because of inadequate budget or personnel to respond to abuses by oil companies. Dunn says all the agencies involved need a thorough housecleaning. This was evident in the Nov. 19 hearing.

Former oil company executives, such as the head of the OCC and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Secretary, should not be policing their counterparts in the industry. As attorneys for Western Environmental Law Center said, the concerns for public health and environment should be equal to the profits received by our state – not less than. Clearly, profit and pleasing the “oil masters” were the only consideration for approving the doubling of wells.

As oil company practices continue to destroy property and violate county laws, more regulation will be required to prohibit damage by the ungrateful guests who harvest our state’s resources. These pirates have proven they cannot be trusted.

Leasing rates must be increased to provide the needed funds to ensure our lands and citizens are protected from the abuses already evident. It is possible to have reasonable oil and gas extraction in New Mexico balanced with safety concerns for our citizens, ranchers, private property and proven environmental best practices. The privilege of drilling in our state is an obligation oil and gas companies must pay for while New Mexico moves toward renewable energy.

Dan A. Pritchard and Cristy Holden, of Taos Progressive, live in Taos.

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