The Conservation Beat
6:43 am
Tue April 3, 2012

Las Vegas Passes Ban on Drilling

Last night, Las Vegas, New Mexico became the first municipality in the Southwest to enact a local bill of rights banning all forms of oil and natural gas drilling in the city and its watershed.

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About an hour before the city council vote, Art Trujillo sat, catching up with a friend at Charlie’s Spic and Span, the local hangout of choice.   Trujillo is a columnist with the Las Vegas Optic, which had just run an editorial against the proposed ordinance.

Trujillo says it’s not a point of view that gets much publicity around here mainly for one reason.

“The newcomers, and I don’t say that disparagingly, the newcomers are often a lot more literate than some of the old, old timers and they have computers and they write more letters to the editor and these are names that I do not recognize.” said Trujillo.

Whether it really is the “quote, unquote” newcomers pushing this ordinance it’s a perception likely exacerbated by the fact that this ordinance was drafted with help from the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund-an organization working with hundreds of cities to pass similar measures. 

These measures generally come in two parts: first, a declaration of a community’s right to home rule then the use of that right to ban fracking even if it means going against state and federal law allowing corporations to drill.

At yesterday’s council meeting, City Attorney David Romero called the ordinance unconstitutional and argued that no Pennsylvania group could be expected to understand water law or the Las Vegas city charter.

“I feel so strongly about this, that if it passed by the council, under the oath as the city attorney, I may have to challenge the issue myself in court, as part of my duty.” said Romero.

The meeting continued with councilors and the mayor asking tough questions about wording and wondering aloud why the legislative process had bee so hurried.   It was so tense that even the dozens of supporters packing the room seemed stunned for a moment when the measure passed three to one.

Afterwards, while accepting pats on the back, local organizer Miguel Pacheco described the vote as a safeguard against water pollution from drilling. 

“We have very limited water here, we have a water shortage-thank you yes, we are always on water rationing, so it’s a no brainer we need to protect our water.” said Pacheco.

City Councilor Andy Feldman, who introduced the measure, acknowledged there are likely to be some changes, AND there’s a good chance the home rule provision will end up in court

“It’s not unconstitutional and it’s not illegal. It’s just a new are of law that the courts haven’t considered, we need to bring that forward before the courts and if we do get challenged, but when you want to change things it often starts as a grass roots effort and that’s what this is about.” said Feldman.

In fact, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund would say that starting enough small fires to catch national attention is the entire point.  To that end, Feldman says the success of this ordinance won’t be measured in whether cases are won or lost.

“But whether or not other municipalities follow suit and pick up this ordinance to start to bring about changes in federal law.”

Las Vegas itself doesn’t have much oil and gas potential so industry hasn’t really made a showing here. But supporters hope the city’s ordinance will pave the way for places rich in natural gas, like Mora County, to take similar action.

David Bacon who’s been working on a rights ordinance for Santa Fe county, says this is a race where he’s happy to come in second.

“Thank goodness, I always wanted Vegas to be number one. And I think the three councilors who voted here have probably opened the door in a bigger way than any of us can imagine right now.”

First and foremost, to a night of celebration.