Energy companies are seeking permits to explore natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Mora County. But the area’s traditional livelihoods, farming and ranching, rely on clean, healthy rivers and streams. New Mexico has recently suffered several years of severe drought. Millions of gallons of water are used to frack, and water contamination and earthquakes are increasingly paired with this technology.
On a sunny afternoon last summer, I drove my daughters north to visit my parents. We made the 90-degree turn at Salman Raspberry Ranch, leaving the sweeping llano that stretches east of Las Vegas as Highway 518 begins to wind between tightly clustered hills of piñon, juniper, and ponderosa. Then the close-knit hills parted and the valley opened before us, the glistening coils of the Mora River wending through a lush field dotted with grazing cattle, cattails, and willow. As we got closer to my parents’ house, the girls pointed out familiar sights: the clinic where my mother worked as a nurse; Mora High School, where my father taught; and the recurring hand-painted signs bearing the image of a cow’s head and phrases like “Farming, not Fracking.”
In 2010, Mora County voters, worried about the mounting threat of fracking, elected John Olivas and Paula Garcia to the Mora County Commission. Both had voiced strong opposition to oil and gas extraction in the county. A local anti-fracking organization, Drilling Mora County, contacted the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which helps municipalities with a legal framework to support local self-governance. As a result, in April 2013, the Mora County Commission passed “The Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance,” the first countywide ban on oil and gas extraction in the United States.
Mora’s community ordinance draws on the protection of state and federal constitutions and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the contract signed between the United States and Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War, which has provisions that protect the property and civil rights of land-grant families in New Mexico. The ordinance places both the indigenous and civil rights of the community over those of corporations—and it has unleashed a flurry of media attention on the Mora community.
It also set off a litigious backlash from the oil and gas industry. The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and three private landowners filed suit against the county in federal district court, and in mid-February 2014, a second lawsuit was filed by a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, which leases state trust land in the eastern part of the county for 25 cents an acre.
Community ordinances like Mora’s are needed “to fill a void,” according to Eric Jantz, a staff attorney for New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Jantz says the “Halliburton loophole” (the energy-bill provision that exempts fracking from EPA regulations), congressional budget cuts, and lack of institutional will to deal with the environmental impacts of extractive industries weaken state and federal protections. If folks in the community put up a good fight, the deep-pocketed corporations take them to court, using what Jantz calls “a perversion of the 14th Amendment” to protect their property rights.
Jantz speculates that the oil and gas industry singled out Mora, “a poor, rural, largely minority community without resources,” purposefully as its battleground. He suspects the industry intends to use lawsuits to “squeeze the county into acquiescence.”