May 2014

OP-ED: Defending Our Community Bill of Rights Ordinance, Which Bans Corporate Oil and Gas Drilling in Mora County


John Olivas


This past spring, the people of our county—Mora County, New Mexico—became the first county in the United States to ban all corporate oil and gas drilling as a violation of the people’s civil and environmental rights.


During the past six months, several corporations have sued Mora County in federal court, seeking to overturn our law, known as the Mora County Community Bill of Rights.


The corporations are claiming the following:


  • That our ban violates the corporations’ constitutional rights to drill;
  • That our protection of the fundamental rights of the people and the natural environment of Mora County violates the corporations’ federal constitutional rights as “persons”; and
  • That Mora County can’t pass such a law because communities can’t ban what the state already regulates; and
  • That New Mexico state legislators, not the people of Mora County or other communities, have exclusive authority to decide whether Mora County is drilled.


These corporations are claiming that they have a constitutional right to frack, and the people of Mora lack a constitutional right to protect their own health, safety and well-being.


In drafting our ordinance, we the people of Mora County asked ourselves what the purpose of law and government is. We agreed that law must serve to protect our people and our community. We then asked ourselves whether we can do so under the existing system of law, which recognizes corporate powers but not community rights. The clear answer to that was no.


We learned that our law-making authority as “we the people” has been largely eliminated as decision-making has been increasingly centralized at the state and federal levels. Simultaneously, private corporations have been granted increasing power to dictate the future of our communities.


Corporations have manufactured a legal system that promotes and protects their private interests over our public interests, including the ever-expanding bestowal of constitutional “rights” onto corporations. Corporations use those “rights” to stop efforts that seek to use local law-making to protect communities from harmful corporate activities.


Thus, in drafting our ordinance, we decided not only to recognize that Mora County residents possess certain civil and environmental rights—to local self-government where they live, to a sustainable energy future, to clean air and water, and to water for agriculture—but that those rights cannot be overridden by corporate “rights” or nullified by state legislatures.


State constitutional provisions may recognize greater constitutional rights than those recognized by the federal bill of rights. Likewise, our local bill of rights recognizes greater rights for the people and environment of Mora County than they possess under either the state or federal Constitution. The prohibitions in the ordinance, including the ban on corporate drilling, become necessary because many activities, if undertaken, would automatically violate the rights secured by the ordinance.


The people of Mora County haven’t set themselves adrift from the state and federal system of law. Instead, our ordinance envisions a transformed system that doesn’t recognize corporations as capable of possessing constitutional rights and that prevents wielding state and federal governments to stop communities from using law to protect themselves.


The Mora Bill of Rights asserts, in law, the democracy that many of us thought we already had.


The Mora County Commissioners voted unanimously to defend the Mora County Community Bill of Rights against two lawsuits filed in federal district court. The second lawsuit was by a subsidiary of the Shell Corporation, which holds leases on New Mexico state trust land in eastern Mora County. This area is also known as White Peak, and the corporation leased these state trust lands in 2010 for $.25 per acre or $160 per section of land.


Rather than the end of the fight, we see these lawsuits as merely a beginning of a waking-up that must occur across our communities and the country, to understand that we are caught within a system that virtually guarantees our destruction. Across the United States, over 150 communities, including the city of Pittsburgh, have begun to walk the path that the people of Mora County are now walking. Along the way, we must not only call out corporate decision-makers for what they do but begin to dismantle what they’ve spent so many years building. We call on you to join the people of Mora County in our resistance to a system of law and governance that bears almost no resemblance to “we the people” and “consent of the governed.” Only then will we begin to build the world and communities that we so desperately need.



Commissioner John Olivas is the chairman of the Mora County Board of Commissioners. This statement was issued by Commissioner Olivas and is not a statement issued by the Mora County Board of Commissioners.





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