New Mexico county to ease oil and gas drilling rules despite new evidence of health dangers

A move by the Valencia County Commission surprises the public and helps a major donor.

Fracking pumpjacks on the horizon.

A mapping project released today by nonprofit environmental groups EarthWorks and FracTracker shows that more than 12.3 million people live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility in the United States — 144,377 of them in New Mexico. And earlier this month, a mostly rural county just south of Albuquerque passed an ordinance that could increase that number further.

In early May, the Valencia County Board of Commissioners passed a zoning “overlay” that would allow anyone in the county to apply to exploit any natural resources on property not along the Rio Grande greenbelt (which bisects the county) and not in an incorporated area. They also would not lose the original county zoning classification of the property. Proposals would still need to meet county and state guidelines for resource development, but the overlay would dramatically reduce the administrative steps and public hearings required by the county for zoning changes.

The change could help landowners exploit all sorts of resources, says County Commissioner Joseph Bizzell, who sponsored the bill. “It could be gravel, it could be hydrogen,” he says. He also has his own business idea: “I’m trying to go after the brackish water.” Bizzell says that water deposits in the west of the county could be tapped, desalinated and sold for both clean water and the resulting salt. Currently, that would require an industrial zoning change, he says, and if the brine ran out, he’d have to apply again to revert the land to either agricultural or residential use.

But the overlay has uses beyond rocks or salty water.

Harvey Yates Jr. of Albuquerque told the commission, “I think there’s a good chance that we could develop a new industry that would mean a better economy for Valencia County.”

“I think there’s a good chance that we could develop a new industry that would mean a better economy for Valencia County.”

– Harvey Yates Jr.

And maybe a better economy for Yates, too.

The one-time head of the state Republican party runs Jalapeño Corporation, an oil and gas drilling and exploration company based in Albuquerque. He’s also part of New Mexico’s best-known and wealthiest oil family. It was a Yates who drilled the first successful oil well in New Mexico in 1907. And in 2016, the family sold Yates Petroleum to EOG Resources for $2.5 billion. While the family’s businesses no longer primarily revolve around owning oil and gas wells, a search at the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division shows that other companies still own nearly 320 wells with “Yates” in the name.

Bizzell, who sponsored the zoning overlay, invited Yates to the commission meeting that night, and Yates was direct when asked during the meeting if there are fossil fuel deposits in Valencia County.

“Are there resources in Valencia County? I think so,” he said. The U.S. Geological Survey thinks it’s possible, too. A 1995 study notes that the Albuquerque Basin “has the potential for large amounts of hydrocarbons, probably gas” — though none had been found to that point due to scattered and “mediocre” subsurface data.

Yates liked the fact that the overlay would allow people to keep doing what they’re doing on the surface as drilling and extraction take place below ground. “In Fort Worth,” he said, “there are 2,000 wells under the city.” He also noted wells beneath Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Valencia County isn’t exactly Fort Worth, or the middle of the Permian Basin. For one thing, there are only about 76,000 people and no oil or gas wells. The county attorney, David Pato, says the overlay allows landowners to quickly revert to previous uses “whether or not there are natural resources within the area.”

That could be important for Yates, as companies he controls — including Jalapeño Corporation, Petro Yates and Yates Exploration — own hundreds of parcels scattered around the eastern part of the county, many of them in ghost developments that were part of the massive ’60s and ’70s-era Horizon Land Corporation swindle. Yates didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.

But Yates’ ties to Valencia County run deeper than the land his companies own. His Jalapeño Corporation donated $1,500 to Bizzell’s 2020 county commissioner election campaign, according to records from the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. That’s about three-quarters of all the money Bizzell raised for the race. When asked about the campaign donations, he changed the subject, saying, “You know, again, I’m looking at the brackish water.”

Bizzell worked with county attorney Pato on the zoning draft: “I gave him the idea of what I wanted, and he wrote it.”

And Bizzell says he shared the proposed zoning overlay with Yates to get his opinions before the commissioners’ meeting. Asked if Yates proposed any changes, Bizzell says, “I don’t know if he brought anything up or not.”

“When constituents have concerns, they bring them up with their commissioners, which are then raised and considered by the board,” Pato says. It’s not clear if Yates is considered a constituent as he lives in another county. Asked what kinds of concerns came up when drafting the proposal, Pato says, “I don’t recall.”

The commission did hear other concerns at the meeting. Duana Draszkiewicz, who lives in the county, came to ask the commission to ban fireworks during this bone-dry season. She stayed when she saw the zoning overlay on the commission’s agenda. After Yates spoke, she told the commission it was “just going for oil and gas. I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.”

She says that, after the meeting, “I had [county workers] outside the door who gave me thumbs up because they can’t speak up.”

“This could be something that the people of the county would not support and would be aghast at happening.”

– County resident Kathy McCord

Kathy McCord, who also came to talk about fireworks and also lives in the county, got up to say, “This could be something that the people of the county would not support and would be aghast at happening.”

They both pleaded with the commissioners to have a larger public hearing — which, in the end, will likely be the case. The zoning change was publicly announced only once before the meeting, and it likely should have been posted twice. Pato said that once was enough for this kind of change but recommended the commissioners rescind the rule, readvertise it and hold another public hearing. Bizzell is in favor of the do-over. “That way everybody has public comment,” he says.

The public has new data to consider.

According to the Oil and Gas Threat Map released today by EarthWorks and FracTracker, none of the more than 144,000 New Mexicans who already live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility are in Valencia County. By comparison, it’s difficult to find areas in huge portions of the Permian and San Juan fossil fuel basins that aren’t within a half-mile of a facility.

Many of those facilities leak toxic gases, and studies show that living close to those emitters leads to increased rates of cancer and other diseases. State and federal agencies have known about this for years, but to this point have been unable to stop the pollution. A case in point: One year into a new reporting program administered by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, 262 operators didn’t file quarterly reports tallying natural gas lost to venting and flaring.

“It can be very overwhelming if you don’t have the means to pick up and move,” says Kayley Shoup, a community organizer with Citizens Caring for the Future. She lives in Carlsbad in the middle of the Permian Basin.

Overwhelming and unhealthy. According to the map data, about 80% of people in San Juan County in the San Juan Basin live within a half mile of an oil or gas facility. Joseph Hernandez with the NAVA education project in Shiprock, New Mexico, lives there and points out that about 60% of the county lies within the Navajo Nation, so the majority of people affected by high air pollution from leaking oil and gas facilities there are people of color.

“For generations we have been impacted at many levels [by] the fossil fuels industry,” he says. “I can’t stress enough how significant this is for future generations.”

Rancher and environmental gadfly Don Schreiber lives on a cattle ranch with 122 producing gas wells on the eastern end of the San Juan Basin. For years, he has goaded state and federal agencies to strengthen the rules governing fossil fuel companies, and he has sharp words for Valencia County’s commissioners and the people who live there.

“Planning and zoning commissions of counties have a huge responsibility,” he says. “They’re the last line of defense” when state and federal institutions can’t or won’t regulate an industry, be that oil, gas or brackish water. He points out that a well is never just a well. You need big drilling equipment. You need trucks or pipelines to carry the resulting liquids away. You need roads for the trucks and to access the wells and pipelines. All of that leads to further industrial development.

He says that companies come to new communities to begin drilling and promise a goose that lays golden eggs. But the companies tend to get the gold.

“The other things that come out of the goose,” he says, “everybody else is left with that.”

This story was originally published in Capital & Main. It is republished here with permission.

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Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main
Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main

Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions, as well as at home in the US. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.

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