A mapping project published today by non-profit environmental groups EarthWorks and FracTracker shows that more than 12.3 million people live within half a mile of an oil and gas facility in the United States, including 144,377 in New Mexico. And earlier this month, a mostly rural county just south of Albuquerque passed an ordinance that could increase that number even further.
In early May, the Valencia County Board of Commissioners passed a zoning “overlay” that would allow anyone in the county to apply to mine natural resources on property not located along the Rio Grande Greenbelt (which divides the county in half) and not in an incorporated area. They would also not lose the zoning classification of the property’s original county. Proposals would still have to meet county and state guidelines for resource development, but the layering would significantly reduce the administrative steps and public hearings required by the county for zoning changes.
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The change could help landowners tap into all kinds 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 get brackish water. Bizzell says water deposits in the western county could be mined, desalinated and sold for both clean water and the resulting salt. Currently, that would require an industrial rezoning, he says, and if the brine runs out, he would have to reapply to have the land for agricultural or residential use.
But layering has uses beyond rocks or salt water.
Harvey Yates Jr. of Albuquerque, a county to the north, told the commission, “I think there’s a good chance we could develop a new industry that would mean a better economy for Valencia County.
And maybe a better economy for Yates, too.
The former leader of the state’s Republican Party runs Jalapeño Corporation, an Albuquerque-based oil and gas drilling and exploration company. He is 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, research at the New Mexico Division of Petroleum Conservation shows that other companies still own nearly 320 wells with “Yates” in the name.
Valencia County Attorney David Pato said the zoning overlay allows landowners to quickly revert to previous uses “whether or not there are natural resources in the area.”
Bizzell, who sponsored the zoning overlay, invited Yates to the commission meeting that evening, and Yates was blunt when asked during the meeting if there were any fossil fuel deposits in the county of Valencia.
“Are there resources in Valencia County?” I think so,” he said. The US Geological Survey also thinks it’s possible. A 1995 study notes that the Albuquerque Basin “has the potential for large quantities of hydrocarbons, probably gas” – although none have been found at this point due to scattered and “poor” underground data. .
Yates liked that the layering would allow people to continue doing what they were doing on the surface while the drilling and mining took place underground. “In Fort Worth,” he said, “there are 2,000 wells under the city.” He also noted wells under Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Valencia County is not exactly Fort Worth or the middle of the Permian Basin. For one, there are only about 76,000 people and no oil or gas wells. County Attorney David Pato says the overlay allows landowners to quickly revert to previous uses “whether or not there are natural resources in the area.”
This could be significant for Yates, as companies he controls — including Jalapeño Corporation, Petro Yates and Yates Exploration — own hundreds of plots scattered across the eastern part of the county, many in ghost developments that were part of the years Massive 60s and 70s Horizon Land Corporation Scam. Yates did not 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 the Bizzell County Commissioner’s 2020 election campaign, according to records from the office of the New Mexico Secretary of State. That’s about three-quarters of all the money Bizzell has raised for the race. Asked about campaign donations, he changed the subject, saying, “You know, again, I’m looking at brackish water.”
“It could be something the people of the county would not support and would be appalled to happen.”
~ Kathy McCord, Valencia County resident
Bizzell worked with County Attorney Pato on the zoning project: “I gave him the idea of what I wanted, and he wrote it down.” And Bizzell says he shared the proposed zoning overlay with Yates to get his input ahead of the commissioners’ meeting. When asked if Yates had suggested any changes, Bizzell replied, “I don’t know if he made anything or not.”
“When constituents have concerns, they take them to their commissioners, who are then raised and considered by the council,” says Pato. It’s unclear if Yates is considered a voter because he lives in another county. Asked about the kinds of concerns raised while writing the proposal, Pato replied, “I don’t remember.
The committee heard other concerns at the meeting. Duana Draszkiewicz, who lives in the county, came to ask the commission to ban fireworks during this 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 to get 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 that gave me a thumbs up because they can’t talk.
Kathy McCord, who also came out to talk about fireworks and also lives in the county, stood up to say, “This might be something the people of the county wouldn’t support and would be appalled to happen.”
They both pleaded with the commissioners to have a wider public audience – which ultimately they probably will. The zoning change was only publicly announced once prior to the meeting, and it probably should have been posted twice. Pato said once was enough for this type of change, but recommended the commissioners rescind the rule, reissue it, and hold another public hearing. Bizzell is in favor of the redesign. “That way everyone has public comments,” he says.
Many oil and gas facilities give off toxic gases, and studies show that living near these emitters leads to increased rates of cancer and other illnesses.
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 half a mile of an oil and gas facility are in the county. of Valencia. By comparison, it is difficult to find areas in huge portions of the Permian and San Juan fossil fuel basins that are not within half a mile of a facility.
Many of these facilities leak toxic gases, and studies show that living near these emitters leads to increased rates of cancer and other illnesses. State and federal agencies have known this for years, but so far they have been unable to stop the pollution. A case in point: One year after the start of a new reporting program administered by the New Mexico Division of Petroleum Conservation, 262 operators failed to file quarterly reports accounting for natural gas losses due to evacuation and flaring.
“It can be very overwhelming if you can’t afford 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 map data, approximately 80 percent of the residents of San Juan County in the San Juan Basin live within half a 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 is in the Navajo Nation, so the majority of people affected by heavy air pollution due leaks from oil and gas facilities are people of color.
“For generations, we have been affected on many levels [by] fossil fuel industry,” he says.
“I can’t stress enough how important this is for future generations.”
Rancher and environmental gadfly Don Schreiber lives on a cattle ranch with 122 producing gas wells at the eastern end of the San Juan Basin. For years, he has pushed state and federal agencies to tighten rules governing fossil fuel companies, and he has harsh words for Valencia County commissioners and the people who live there.
“County planning and zoning commissions have a huge responsibility,” he says. “They are the last line of defense” when state and federal institutions are unable or unwilling to regulate an industry, be it oil, gas or brackish water. He emphasizes that a well is never just a well. You need big drilling equipment. You need trucks or pipelines to transport the resulting liquids. Roads are needed for trucks and to access wells and pipelines. All this leads to further industrial development.
He says companies are coming to new communities to start drilling and promising a golden goose. But companies tend to get the gold.
“The other things that come out of the goose,” he says, “everyone ends up with that.”
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