Mora County faces new lawsuit over drilling ban
The Goliath bearing down on Mora County just got bigger. A Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary has joined a fight to kill Mora County’s ban on oil and gas development by filing a lawsuit Jan. 10 in federal District Court in Albuquerque.
This is the second lawsuit the rural Northern New Mexico county is facing over a community rights ordinance that effectively prevents oil and gas drilling.
Mora residents and officials say they passed the ordinance because they are worried about hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to crack open rocks and release trapped hydrocarbons. The industry claims the technique, popularly called fracking, is safe, but communities around the United States are worried it will pollute groundwater.
The recent lawsuit was filed by Shell Western E&P Inc., or SWEPI Limited Partnership. It asks the court not only to overturn the ordinance, but to award the company damages.
The company claims the Mora County ordinance strips the corporation of its constitutional rights under the First, Fifth and 14th amendments, and says the rule is in conflict with a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that corporations are persons for purposes of the rights afforded by the Constitution. The company also says the ordinance divests it of its property interests by preventing it from pursuing oil and gas drilling on private and state trust lands leased in the county.
The county was first sued Nov. 15 by the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico trade group and three Mora County property owners in federal District Court over the ordinance.
“Is this fight really about hydraulic fracturing?” asked the trade group’s executive director, Karin Foster, on the association’s website shortly after the lawsuit was filed. “No. If you read the text of the Mora County Community Rights Ordinance, it clearly states that, ‘Corporate entities and their directors and managers shall not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law.’
“The fight in Mora is much bigger than fracking or even oil and gas,” Foster’s statement continued. “It is about business and our American way of life. It is time for industry, business and the general public to fight back to expose the hypocrisy of the people who drive their cars, turn on their lights, take hot showers, wear their Patagonia jackets and drink their Starbucks coffee at town hall meetings in Mora County.”
Mora County commissioners and residents who support the Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance readily agree their intent was to once again put citizens first and challenge the power of corporations.
Mora County approved the community rights ordinance in April 2013 in a 2-1 vote. The only commissioner who voted against the ordinance, Paula Garcia, said she opposes drilling but was worried the county was setting itself up for a lawsuit.
Months later, Garcia voted with the other two commissioners to hire law firms and defend the county’s position. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center in Santa Fe will be among the firms representing the county.
Oil and gas companies are eyeing Mora and San Miguel Counties for future drilling. KHL Inc. and other companies have negotiated oil and gas lease deals on an estimated 100,000 acres of land, mostly in the eastern half of Mora County.
Oil and gas leases for more than 9,000 acres of state trust land in the area near White Peak were approved in 2010.
Santa Fe County has an ordinance that doesn’t ban oil and gas drilling, but is extremely restrictive. To date, the ordinance has not been challenged in court and there has been no drilling.