Mora County’s Drilling Ban, the Moral High Ground or Moronic?

Marita Noon 2013 greyIn 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, on April 29, 2013, in a 2-1 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.”

Olivas characterizes himself as a part of a great crusade. 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 (CELDF)—which calls itself a “public-interest law firm.” 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.”

Funding for CELDF has come from such sources as the Heinz Endowments of Pittsburgh, chaired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz ($162,000 from 2000-2002); the Norman Foundation of New York City ($180,000 from 2003-11); the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation of New York City ($165,000 from 2001-11); and the Park Foundation of Ithaca, New York ($135,000 from 2008-11). It has also received support from RSF [Rudolf Steiner Foundation] Social Finance, a leader in what the magazine Inc. calls “do-gooder finance.”

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.

Attitude About-Face

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.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports: Many Mora County residents “believe the ban was an ill-advised move that will have high costs for an already cash-strapped county government and it will gain it nothing except attention. Others say the ordinance is an example of an outside Anglo group using a poor, minority county for its own ends.”

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 (who is working to get a similar ordinance passed in other New Mexico towns and communities), have convinced the commissioners and some of the people of Mora County 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.

National Impacts

Mora County doesn’t have any drilling activity but it is important as a part of the national battle.

La Jicarita—which calls itself “an online magazine of environmental politics in New Mexico”—states: “CELDF works in a national arena and sees itself as taking the high road, a radical approach to social change that asserts the ‘rights’ of communities and ecosystems and works towards ‘federal constitutional change.’”

Understanding the potential national implications, is paying attention to what happens in Mora County. A piece posted on’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.


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