Alibi V.28 No.10 • March 7-13, 2019 

News Feature

The Fractured Earth

Fracking bill would stop drilling to investigate process

Anti-fracking activists
Anti-fracking activists (L-R) Ann Chavez Barudin, Jenni Siri, Eileen Shendo, Karen Waters, Mark LeClaire and Margarita Mercure Hibbs
Senate Bill 459 would prohibit the issuance of new hydraulic fracturing permits within the state of New Mexico. The bill would create a new section in the New Mexico Oil and Gas act aimed at ending the fossil-fuel mining practice until 2023, when it has been fully studied and plans made for its regulation, even its end.

In the interim, several state agencies—including the Department of Health, the Indian Affairs Department and the Department of Environment—would be tasked with completing yearly reports on hydraulic fracturing (fracking, for pop culture and common usage purposes) and the many issues associated with its use in producing non-sustainable energy products.

Clearly it is hoped that such yearly reporting will result in a smoking gun presented to our governor and the Legislature with an unwritten goal of ultimately ending the practice for all time.

It is hoped that the state, through its own laws and subsequent oversight actions, will ultimately discover that the dangers of fracking outweigh the benefit that such mining procedures provide to citizens of the Land of Enchantment and thereafter, do the right thing.

How could it be otherwise when fracking is the ultimate process for extracting a diminishing source of energy from an at-risk Earth. The produce of these efforts, more natural gas and petroleum, are still being marketed by corporate utility and fuel companies that indeed see the writing on the wall. Oh, they’ll get on board with renewables, but first they want a last go at the fabled teat that gave so much gold and gravy to their fathers and grandfathers.

How could it be otherwise when fracking is the ultimate process for extracting a diminishing source of energy from an at-risk Earth. The produce of these efforts, more natural gas and petroleum, are still being marketed by corporate utility and fuel companies that indeed see the writing on the wall. Oh, they’ll get on board with renewables, but first they want a last go at the fabled teat that gave so much gold and gravy to their fathers and grandfathers.

Before SB 459 was to be discussed at this year’s Legislature, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department reported to the Senate Conservation Committee, presenting their annual report and telling members that little research on the effects of fracking in New Mexico has been done. Further, it became clear to the committee that there is nothing in current law that allows the state to regulate multi-stage horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking differently from the methods used to regulate conventional vertical drilling.

In case you are interested, the legislation in question defines fracking as “the process of injecting fluid into an oil- or natural gas-bearing rock formation adjacent to the borehole of an existing oil or natural gas well for the purpose of either creating new fractures or expanding existing fractures [in the Earth] to stimulate the flow of oil into the well of oil or natural gas that would otherwise remain [trapped] in the rock formation.”

The results of such endeavors are verifiably disastrous. They involve lots of water too, an aspect of the issue which brings it nearly to critical mass in this desert state where global warming has resulted in local phenomena like the main river in the state drying up during the summer.

Fracking uses a lot of water that is not returned to the water table and dissipates underground, unusable for drinking purposes. Additionally, fracking returns polluted water from the mining process to the surface. Further, much of the land available to be fracked is either public land held in trust or Tribal land; both are integral to a healthy human relationship with the Earth.

Finally the gear and materials left behind by mining crews scar and degrade the natural landscape. And the problematic process may even cause earthquakes. How’s that for an issue guaranteed to get the public involved in the lawmaking process?

Into this arena, as citizens in the state and the world become more aware of what this planet-wrecking procedure entails, activists—teachers, fathers, mothers, tribe members, regular folks—have been reaching out to their leadership and to the press about making it clear that not only is fracking a technological dead end, the whole process from start to finish damages the Earth in ways that are immediate, long-lasting and perhaps even civilization shattering.

The way I know about this, besides my own interest and reading, is because several local anti-fracking activists called and emailed our editorial department last week.

Fracking
Fracking
Anita Starzycka
One of them, Karen Waters, told me over the phone that on the day the bill was to be heard by the Senate Conservation Committee, it was shuffled to the bottom of the meeting’s agenda, and only given 30 minutes of discussion at the end of the day. Waters complained that her attempt to tell Committee Chair Cervantes about her displeasure regarding the limited discussion time—she and fellow activists brought many visual resources and experts to testify in favor of the fracking moratorium after all—was met by nonchalance as a panel of lawmakers essentially said they’d take the matter up later, at their discretion.

So I asked Ms. Waters to draw up the citizen activists who had been at that meeting, to bring them to Alibi HQ and to spend a morning telling me and our readers why fracking is so dang bad for New Mexico.

She brought herself and five others: Jenni Siri and Margarita Mercure Hibbs from Frack Free Four Corners; Ann Chavez Barudin, a member of Kewa Pueblo; local father and farmer Mark LeClaire and Eileen Shendo, the daughter of longtime District 22 State Senator Benny Shendo.

This is what the people had to say about fracking.

Weekly Alibi: Karen you had some problems the other day at the Legislature. Can you please tell our readers about those problems?

Karen Waters: Well what happened was we were supposed to be heard first. We got pushed to last. And not only were we pushed to last, we were only allowed 30 minutes. And we had specific speakers, scientists. We had a geologist. We had a hydrologist. They were each allowed five minutes. Ms. Sedillo Lopez, one of the sponsors of the bill, spoke for about 10 minutes. Then Senator Benny Shendo, who has Chaco Canyon as part of his district, spoke. They were both very effective, but after they spoke there was only 10 minutes left. On top of it Senator Cervantes was rude. He wasn’t rude anywhere else during the proceedings. He asked for a show of hands to see who was supporting and who wasn’t supporting the bill. He saw there were a substantial amount of supporters, but was still rude to us. And then they tabled it. We haven’t heard anything since.

Have you talked to Senators Shendo and Sedillo Lopez about rescheduling?

Mark LeClaire: It will probably be heard Tuesday, March 5.

OK. So that’s where we are now.

Karen: In a nutshell.

Well hopefully all those things that were frustrating for you last week will be rectified. We’ll keep our readers posted on that. Ms. Hibbs, tell me a little bit about the bill. What does it mean for New Mexico citizens?

Marguerita Mercure Hibbs: I think that Senate Bill 459 means that New Mexico and all of its citizens will finally have the rules and concepts of accountability, environmental impact studies—how fracking affects our air and water—finally available. That means our senators and state legislators will have a full body of information available with regards to the impact of fracking and fracking industry, which by the way, represents about 90 percent of the drilling taking place in New Mexico today.

Doesn’t fracking seem like a last resort to you? The attempt to find what very little fossil fuel is left instead of making the outright switch, the common sense evolution to renewables?

With a state like New Mexico, where on average we have 320 sunny days per year, it seems to make sense, yes. I think you captured that accurately. When an industry composed of corporations is allowed to make top-level profits for itself while paying only two percent in gross receipts taxes, while citizens pay between five and eight percent, we’re essentially subsidizing that industry. And they take credit for that largesse. And the reality is that they are essentially polluters.

The state takes the revenue from the oil and gas industry really seriously.

Well, yes.

Mark LeClaire: I want to point something out about that.

Right on, that’s good.

Most of the fracking in New Mexico is done on state or federal land. That’s our land. Those are our resources!

And corporations are profiting from their use?

It’s like they’ve sunk their teeth into New Mexico. The state gives them that land for as little as $2 per acre.

As leases?

Yes.

And afterwards they leave a mess behind. I’ve seen photos of the operations. I recall that even our former state land commissioner, a Republican turned Libertarian publicly lamented those outcomes.

Eileen Shendo: They’re not only eyesores. There are actually contaminates in the machinery, in the equipment, in the soil and water, all left behind. That’s something we really have to educate ourselves about. As you can see, and as was brought up in the first meeting of the Conservation Committee, the state is unaware of many of these environmental issues happening at and around fracking facilities.

Well not even the La Tejana’s state land commissioner was aware of the degradation going on until he took a deeper look.

Ann Chavez Barudin: Exactly. And that calls into question whether any of this qualifies as environmental racism because a lot of this degradation is happening on tribal land and on public trust lands. It’s almost like gas and oil corporations are taking advantage of the lack of regulation to further destabilize the most vulnerable of populations.

Eileen Shendo: Economics says it all. This is happening in the counties where they can’t even afford to come in and clean up afterwards, much less do they have the legal counsel to represent such communities and keep companies that frack away. Poor people suffer because of fracking.

Do these communities get anything back from fracking?

[sound of general disdainful laughter]

The royalties on the leases range from $200 per month to $1,500 per month. When corporations say that people are being paid royalties, that they are in on conversations regarding fracking, it’s only to a minimal extent. And they [the oil and gas companies] don’t acknowledge the language barrier. Over 70 percent of these wells are in the San Juan Basin, in a Navajo-speaking community. It’s like this is the national sacrifice zone. Like you said, this is the last resort.

What’s the main problem with fracking, then?

All: Water loss and contamination!

Mark, could you address that further?

Fracking is like extreme energy extraction. Some of the issues that we have with it include the air pollution that comes with it. When they first drill the well, a lot of natural gas vents into the atmosphere. So now we have a huge methane cloud hovering over the four corners. Not only is that methane a very potent greenhouse gas—it’s almost a hundred times as powerful as carbon dioxide—but other gasses come up too and they threaten the health of the community. Gasses and chemicals like toluene, benzene, hydrogen sulfide are very poisonous and damaging to the environment.

And does this legislation call for studying such overt pollution?

Absolutely. This legislation requires state agencies like the Department of Health to look at the health effects of fracking and report on those effects to the state Legislature. As it is now, the industry has circumvented the study of these collateral impacts on consumers. No one has been critically looking at any of this. They only have to look at a very narrow scope of requirements to begin drilling. We are asking for all these ill effects—health effects, environmental effects—to be looked at, under the lens, by our state Legislature.

Eileen Shendo: We want them to acknowledge that there are problems and act accordingly.

Mark LeClaire: Everyone wants to talk about green energy. No one wants to deal with the root of our problems. Here is one of the biggest roots; let’s start digging that up one instead.

Editor’s Note: As of press time, the hearing for SB 459 in the Senate Conservation Committee has yet to be rescheduled. Weekly Alibi urges Senator Cervantes to reschedule this committee hearing and give New Mexico citizens an opportunity to be heard.