In a little "frontier" community in northern New Mexico, a property rights battle is playing out with huge national implications and almost no one knows it is taking place. The outcome of two lawsuits that are pending against Mora County and its Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance have the potential to impact an individual's ability to use and profit from his or her own land — not just in New Mexico, but from coast-to-coast.
One year ago, in a 2 to 1 vote, Mora County Commissioners made headlines by making the little county the first in the country to ban oil-and-gas exploration and production outright. Several communities have passed moratoriums or bans on hydraulic fracturing. Others, such as nearby Santa Fe County, have enacted rules and regulations that are so restrictive on drilling practices that they essentially do ban oil-and-gas drilling. But none have gone so far as to totally outlaw all development of hydrocarbons.
County Commissioner John Olivas, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners — who is on staff at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance as a "traditional community organizer" and is also listed as the "northern director," believes "the ordinance is defensible" and claims the little county is "ready for the fight."
He said: "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." Olivas sees the effort as part of a movement that is bigger than an oil-and-gas ban in an area that doesn't have any current drilling activity. He wants to "not only call out corporate decision makers for what they do — but begin to dismantle what they've spent so many years building."
The Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance
Mora County's ordinance was a triumph for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. About its work, the website states: "CELDF has assisted more than 150 communities across the country to establish Community Rights ordinances that today are protecting communities from a range of harmful practices, from shale gas drilling and fracking to the land application of sewage sludge."
In a press release about Mora County's vote, CELDF Executive Director Thomas Linzey, Esq., claims: "Mora is joining a growing people's movement for community and nature's rights."
The Mora ordinance states: "It shall be unlawful for any corporation to engage in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within Mora County." In June 2013, the commission voted to expand the ban to individuals as well. Additionally, under the ordinance, any permits or licenses issued by either the federal or state government that would allow activities that would compromise the county's rights would be considered invalid.
The ordinance tests U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1800s that recognize corporations as having many of the same rights as citizens and challenges state and federal powers.
Originally emboldened by talk that little Mora County was going to lead the nation in a "community rights" movement, in the face of lawsuits, many locals feel that they've been used.
One resident said: "People want to support a cause until they realize it is expensive." Another: "Outsiders are trying to bring California to Mora." Still another: "The county is out of control. It is broke."
Many local residents were interviewed for background on this story. They addressed the desire for the jobs the resource development could bring. Others expressed frustration over the use of fear, not facts, in making the ban decision. One said: "They're taking corporations rights now, next they'll come and take mine."
CELDF's Linzey calls the situation: "The fight that people have been too chicken to fight over the past 10 years, which is essentially deciding who makes the decisions about the future of the places where people live."
Linzey and his on-the-ground operative Kathleen Dudley, have convinced the commissioners and some of the people of Mora County that that they are taking the moral high ground. When, in fact, they are the only community foolish enough to make themselves susceptible to being the guinea pigs for Linzey's radical ideas.
Mora County doesn't have any drilling activity but it is important as a part of the national battle.
Understanding the potential national implications, requires paying attention to what happens in Mora County. A piece posted on ThinkProgress.com's ClimateProgress site, states: "the amount of resources now unavailable to the oil and gas industry does not matter as much as the precedent the ordinance sets for other counties, cities, and even states that want to put an end to fossil fuel extraction. … If the IPA's lawsuit against Mora succeeds, there will be a strong basis for future challenges to any other similar law or ordinance. However, if Mora's ordinance holds up in court, it will become that much harder for the oil and gas industry to challenge future bans on fossil fuel extraction that may crop up in other places."
The Mora County story, isn't just about Mora County and it isn't just about oil-and-gas drilling—or even about fracking. It reflects a battle being played out across America.
Author's note: Text is adapted from a full report published in the May 2014 edition of Green Watch.