Over the objections of New Mexico's elected officials and State Land Office attorneys, the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources' Oil Conservation Commission has approved an application from Hilcorp Energy to double oil well density in a 1.3 million-acre portion of the San Juan Basin in the state's northwestern corner.
Already, oil and gas companies can seek an exception to rules around well-spacing, but the current process requires public notice and a hearing. The change to rules approved Monday allows Hilcorp and other operators to develop up to eight wells per 320 acres without having to consult the public.
US Representative and Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote to state Environment Secretary Ken McQueen last week asking that he delay the hearing. She becomes governor on Jan. 1, just over seven weeks away.
Lujan Grisham mentioned letters fellow Democratic members of the New Mexico congressional delegation Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján had written to the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management "requesting answers to constituent concerns about the vital issues of public health, safety and environmental protection."
Though they'd given a Nov. 1 deadline for those responses, the legislators have yet to receive them. Hilcorp Energy has also not yet responded to a request from the EPA for more information on recently recompleted wells, which the company has argued this new rule will target.
Representative-elect Debra Haaland, New Mexico State Land Commissioner-Elect Stephanie Garcia Richard, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, Navajo Nation Council Delegate-elect Daniel Tso, and House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chair and state Rep. Matthew McQueen also all requested the hearing be delayed, according to a filing by the Western Environmental Law Center, which represents the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Andrea Antillon, an attorney with the State Land Office, argued at the hearing Monday that the state agency had been given inadequate time to review the application and how it would affect 65,000 acres of state trust land. She cited an email received on Tuesday Nov. 13—the day after the cutoff to add to the witness list—that acknowledged the state office had not been given timely notice about the Nov. 19 hearing and asked the office's legal staff to waive their right to that notice. They declined to do so. Oil Conservation Commissioner Robert Balch pointed to notification sent in August about a Sept. 13 hearing as sufficient.
The matter had been postponed during that September hearing to allow Hilcorp, a newcomer to New Mexico, to reach out to other operators in the area. Despite this additional time and a recommendation that the company also connect with other government landowners, Hilcorp staff still had not contacted the US Forest Service, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe or Navajo allottees. The commission's jurisdiction, argued Hilcorp's representation Michael Feldewert, applies only to the resources underground, and so the company did not try to contact all surface landowners.
"I fail to see the importance," he said. "They have no standing in these down-hole regulations."
The San Juan Citizens Alliance, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center attorneys, filed motions to intervene and a delay the case until after the information requested by the BLM and EPA was received. The alliance argued that as a 30-year organization representing those whose health and livelihoods would be directly affected by oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin, it had standing in this case. The commission ruled otherwise, denying its motion to intervene and thus disqualifying the motion for continuance.
The issue was the only one addressed at Monday's special meeting. When the meeting began at 9 am, at least 20 people signed up to make a formal comment on the proposal. By the time the first members of the public were called on to speak around 3 pm, after three breaks including an hour and a half for lunch and an executive session, less than half of those commenters remained in the room.
"I have a chest full of emotion, mostly outrage, at what has happened here today," Don Schreiber, a rancher from Rio Arriba County told commissioners when he was finally given a few minutes to speak. "How can you ask us to be respectful when you disregard the health of people affected, and when you disrespect the requests of the officials they elected?"