OP-ED: Mike Neas

Horizontal Fracking in the Albuquerque Basin

By Mike Neas

By now everyone knows that our water is at risk, right? We’re in an extended drought, and even though we may see short periods of increased rainfall and snowpack, the long-term projections are dim. Climate change is the main reason.

So why do we allow the oil and gas industry to continue to despoil billions of gallons of fresh water every year? Not only do they turn the water into a toxic waste; they dispose of it two miles below the earth’s surface, permanently removing it from the natural water cycle. The industry says they use only one percent of New Mexico’s water per year. Is that a cumulative figure?

The dangers of fracking, combined with horizontal drilling in the Albuquerque Basin, are brought to light in a new documentary film, Sacred Land Sacred Water. It is an excellent exposé on the unique geological makeup of the basin and the public’s effort in Sandoval County to overcome the pressures and money of the oil and gas industry. While Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and Sandoval County are looking into ordinances to protect the basin’s water, the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCG) is scheduled to vote in October on whether to take on a request from the Water Protection Advisory Board (WPAB) to send the matter to its own Water Resource Board, which includes representatives from all local governments, including 12 tribes in the region. If you are interested in our water, now is the time to speak up.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) says New Mexico is number three in production in the U.S. and poised to climb higher. The industry is increasing its water usage at a time when it should be decreased. In a year when the industry is reportedly putting an additional $1.2 billion into the state’s budget, it is even harder for New Mexicans to break out of our hostage situation with the industry.  

Here in the Albuquerque Basin, which is still known for its water and not for its oil, we must face the fact that fracking and horizontal drilling are headed our way. In 2015, Sand Ridge applied for a permit in Sandoval County to drill a well. Sandoval County shares the same aquifer as Bernalillo and Valencia counties. Any contamination will head downhill across city and county boundaries. None of these counties have oil and gas ordinances in place. Complicating matters, it’s unlikely that all counties, cities and towns in the basin will ever agree with one another on water protection measures versus economic development issues. Polluted water is most likely where our weakest water defenders are. The 800,000 water-using citizens of the Albuquerque Basin must be actively represented and must push for strong ordinances that address what happens when oil and gas producers come to town.  

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) supplies water to 670,000 water users. By joint ordinance, Albuquerque and Bernalillo County created the WPAB, which issued its first letter of recommendation for oil and gas ordinances in 2016. That got the attention of state Sen. Mimi Stewart, who sponsored a memorial asking the state to recognize the importance of the Albuquerque Basin as a water source. In 2017, just 16 months after its first letter, the WPAB issued a second. The second letter also asked the MRCG to assist in a basin-wide effort to draft a template ordinance that could be used by local governments to address water protection and oil and gas fracking.  

We are all Water Protectors and should contact our local elected officials and candidates regarding the creation of oil and gas ordinances for the entire Albuquerque Basin. Contact your city council, county commission, mayor, WPAB and MRCOG, Association of Counties, ABCWUA, state representatives and state senators.

We must educate a major portion of our state’s population about the water insanity that is fracking. See Sacred Land Sacred Water, Oct. 14, 2 p.m. at the Kimo Theater. A panel of experts will speak afterward.

For more information, please contact me: 505 269.4261.

Mike Neas is a general contractor and 37-year resident of Placitas, New Mexico.

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  1. Two Citizen Oil and Gas Ordinance Drafts were submitted to the Sandoval County P&Z, the Science Team (ST), Ordinance Team (OT) and a third ‘Baseline’ industry draft.
    See a comparison chart and background documents at

    The OT Ordinance protects waters of Middle Rio Grande Basin (MRGB) with a “Site-Specific” approach. On the other hand, a fracking ban along a portion of the MRGB, as defined by ST draft districting, would allow vertical drilling and surface spills, and thus a major source of groundwater contamination would continue to commonly take place.

    Alternatively, Site-Specific would regulate well location based on surface geologic, hydrologic, and seismologic factors as well as cultural and Tribal input. Site-Specific regulates drilling locations as they relate directly to ground water resources for each specific site proposed across the County. No other ordinance draft or state regulatory agency, e.g. OCD or Environment Department look at site specific characteristics when permitting drilling. A Site-Specific approach is more protective of all water resources throughout the County including the MRGB.

    A fracking ban will most certainly trigger a lawsuit from the industry. Two independent legal consultants to the OT, including the NM Law Clinic, have given sound legal opinion against a ban. A county does not have the legal authority to ban fracking. In 2014, the Mora County Ordinance banned fracking, was legally challenged by industry and was ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court judge. One could reasonably justify a ban based solely on principle, if there were no other way to protect the MRGB, but given a Site-Specific approach, that is simply not the case.

    Of grave concern, the lack of public hearings in the NW part of the county under ST and Baseline draft provisions. It is as important to address concerns in this part of the county as it is to address the concerns of all county residents. Ground water may be “naturally” more protected given the San Juan Basin geology, but noise, roads, emergency services, waste management and setbacks are among the issues of concern to many residents in Cuba, Navajo Tri-Chapters and surrounding communities.

    How does any elected official justify foregoing public hearings when permitting such a heavy industry with serious risks to the health, safety and welfare of residents? Unfortunately, neither the ST nor Baseline drafts would require public hearings before permitting drilling in the NW area of the county. Alternatively, the OT draft requires public hearings across the county, a right afforded to every citizen.

    The OT sought expert legal counsel on matters such as dividing the county into districts, right to public hearings, and treatment of Tribes as States. Among other complex legal issues, these had to be researched thoroughly by counsel before the OT could address such in their draft ordinance.

    Sound legal advice, thorough debate and public and Tribal input at every turn lead the OT to take a stance in favor of a Site-Specific approach, where in each applicant’s proposed drilling site shall be approved or negotiated by expert consultants, hired at industry expense, not in terms of geology alone but, as importantly, in terms of cultural preservation and respect, Tribal input and community right to know.

    Additionally, the OT draft is unique in that it provides for the right to revoke a permit and requires a 2021 Formal Review by the County P&Z Department.

    It is the hope of many that county residents and leadership will put their support behind the OT Ordinance Draft. This is the most important decision we will make for decades to come. Water is Life!
    Respectfully, Donna Dowell