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SandRidge project manager Matt Blose describes the company's plan for drilling for oil near Rio Rancho during a packed meeting of the Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Public hearing on Rio Rancho oil search extended

—Bill Diven

The process of deciding whether an Oklahoma company may drill for oil near Rio Rancho took a half step forward in December with more debate scheduled this month.

The Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission recessed its December 10 public hearing after listening to company representatives and state regulators but less than half of the sixty people who signed up to speak. The hearing is to resume on January 28 with the remaining public testimony from those left waiting at the earlier hearing.

P&Z commissioners could then approve, reject, or extend consideration of the zoning application by SandRidge Exploration and Production LLC of Oklahoma City. The final decision on special-use zoning for two acres of a forty-acre tract about four miles west of Rio Rancho is up to the Sandoval County Commission. A challenge could be filed in District Court.

The P&Z staff is recommending SandRidge be allowed to drill an exploratory well under conditions mostly related to traffic, lighting, and fencing, site reclamation and access for emergency services. Should SandRidge use hydraulic fracturing in its exploration, another condition adds tracers to fracking fluids to track the fractures relative to groundwater.

P&Z Director Michael Springfield said the staff doesn’t have enough information to recommend either way on SandRidge shifting from exploration to oil production. Instead SandRidge should apply for new special-use zoning permit for production with a second round of public hearings, said.

SandRidge still prefers a single permit but would rather get some approval than none, Linda McDonald, the company’s regulatory director said.

Springfield also said the county lacks in-house expertise in some areas and defers to state agencies to regulate water, environmental, and petroleum issues.

SandRidge, granted an exploration permit by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, also would need a second state permit for a production well, OCD Director David Catanach told the commission. The forty-acre tract could support up to four wells, he added.

Public comment leaned heavily against the project over concerns about groundwater contamination, property values, climate change, methane releases, hydraulic fracturing, earthquakes, and SandRidge’s track record in Oklahoma. The few supportive comments hinged on the economic boost to the city and county, jobs, and bringing services to people living off the grid in the section of the Rio Rancho development divided into thousands of undeveloped lots.

For others, the issue was not a single exploratory well but what comes next if recoverable oil is discovered. They suggested a moratorium on oil and gas drilling until the county can draft an ordinance governing energy development.

“The county is not ready to deal with this,” said Bob Wessely. “This application is the camel’s nose under the tent. Don’t let it happen until you know how to deal with camels.”

In a later interview, Wessely, president of the Rio Grande Water Assembly but speaking only for himself, said he recently worked with a citizens group helping San Miguel County write and pass such an ordinance. That showed it’s possible to strike a balance between an outright drilling ban, which wouldn’t stand up in court, and giving energy companies and property owners free rein, which shifts extensive costs to local taxpayers.

Those expenses can range from specialized fire equipment, training, to drug-treatment and other social costs, he said.

“It will certainly take a year or two or maybe longer, but the county has the advantage of the San Miguel, Santa Fe, and Rio Arriba ordinances,” Wessely added. “I know the county is eager for the economic development, but the cost of regulation is way smaller than the costs of wells… The regulation is not the driving force for drilling or not; it’s the price of oil.”

The company is proposing a 10,500-foot well that would punch through the aquifer supplying a significant portion of Rio Rancho’s municipal water. State regulations require drilling through an aquifer to be nonstop and followed by cementing a protective casing.

Catanach said in his 26 years with OCD he knew of no cases of oil and gas drilling contaminating a water supply although there were incidents in Lea County in the 1940s and 1950s.

Rio Rancho has two wells sunk to about 1,500 feet and 1,900 feet within three miles of the SandRidge site. The drilling location near 46th Street and 24th Avenue within the part of the county’s 2014 Rio Rancho Estates Area Plan identified as a water-conservation area and open space limited to light industrial uses that bring in water from outside sources.

The exploratory drilling would run 24 hours a day for no more than 15 or twenty days, SandRidge project manager Matt Blose told commissioners. The company chose the site because explorations in the Albuquerque Basin in the early 1970s suggest formations there similar to those in the San Juan Basin extending from northwestern Sandoval County into the Four Corners area around Farmington, he said.

The San Juan Basin and the Permian and Delaware basins in southeastern New Mexico make the state the country’s fifth-largest oil producer, according to federal statistics. The state budget relies heavily on oil and gas revenues with the price per barrel of oil dropping from above $110 dollars in mid-2014 to under $40 recently.

Blose said water bought from Rio Rancho and used in drilling would be contained in a closed-loop system with wastewater trucked to a disposal facility near Cuba. The well also will be equipped with a blowout preventer intended to keep methane gas from escaping.

AMREP Corporation, which developed Rio Rancho, retained mineral rights and through its subsidiary Outer Rim Investments Inc. leased nearly 55,000 subsurface acres to two New Mexico companies, Thrust Energy Inc. of Roswell and Cebolla Roja, LLC of Ruidoso. SandRidge is working with the Roswell and Ruidoso companies in the oil exploration.


Design concepts for widening US 550 revealed

Signpost Staff

Visions of flyovers and double-decking U.S. Highway 550 through Bernalillo are gone, but the reality of squeezing new lanes and future traffic into the town’s commercial strip is now on the table.

For the immediate future, however, the only money in hand is $13 million dollars for a second bridge over the Rio Grande and connecting lanes on either side. Work on that could begin late this year.

At a December 17 meeting, the New Mexico Department of Transportation and its consultants unveiled three concepts for widening nearly two miles of four-lane highway to five or six lanes. The project connects the existing six-lane section completed in 2014 between Interstate 25 and Camino del Pueblo with the six-lane segment of State Road 528 that ends at U.S. 550 in Rio Rancho.

Bernalillo town officials and staff have been meeting with the project design team, and Mayor Jack Torres said it appears town concerns are being given serious consideration. The town argued, and the team agreed, that an early idea for an eight-lane highway would wreck the business corridor east of the river.

“It’s not just about moving traffic east and west,” Torres told the Signpost. “It’s important to accommodate local needs.”

That includes north-south traffic on Camino del Pueblo, the town’s main street also known as State Road 313, and on Camino Don Tomas. A town project recently upgraded the Camino Don Tomas-US 550 intersection with new signals, sidewalks, and turn lanes.

One town suggestion, that is apparently not gaining traction, is backage roads on either side of the business corridor. The opposite of frontage roads, backage roads run behind businesses to provide access while limiting curb cuts and turns on the main road.

“We did not get a commitment but continue to push what we think would be a dramatic improvement,” Torres said. “If it’s not done soon, the opportunity will go away.”

The town is also pressing for an economic analysis of the three project alternatives, he added.

“Each one has some advantages and some disadvantages for us,” Torres continued. “There’s so much traffic that there’s no solution that gets traffic through and protects businesses.”

The project team will be contacting business owners for their thoughts on the project design. Norm Lazar, owner of WonderWash Laundromat, said he welcomes that opportunity but remains concerned about left turns in and out of his business being eliminated.

“Engineers think that the public can adapt to whatever they think is right, and I’m thinking I don’t know how effective they’re going to be to get across lanes,” Lazar said. “I understand the concern about having to do something, but I think people who need to get their business done instead of going into a congested area will go somewhere else.”

A state consultant monitored traffic at the Rio Grande bridge for 48 hours on a Wednesday and Thursday in May, 2013, tallying an average daily count of 32,315 vehicles. The Mid-Region Council of Governments forecast that count to be fifty thousand by 2035 but recently rolled back that number to reflect the weak economic conditions in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.

The design concepts and their working titles are:

  • Reversible Lane—adds one reversible lane in the middle governed by overhead lights and flowing east to I-25 in the morning and west to Rio Rancho in the afternoon commuter crunches. During the day the lane would act as a continuous left-turn lane.
  • Six Lane—Adds a lane in each direction plus a raised median to control access and limit turns.
  • Super Street—Six lanes without cross traffic or left turns to increase green-light times for through traffic. Drivers wanting to cross US 550 or turn left onto the highway would instead turn right to designated and signaled U-turn lanes. The U-turns would also replace left turns into businesses.

The preferred alternative likely will be chosen this month and be followed by an environmental study and more public meetings. All of the concepts require additional right-of-way for traffic and bicycle lanes mostly east of the Rio Grande affecting parking areas, landscaping, and the two business buildings nearest Camino del Pueblo on the north side of the highway.

The alternatives include various ideas to keep turning traffic moving at US 550 and NM 528 although a west-to-south flyover already is deemed to be too expensive.

NMDOT estimates the costs for the three alternatives including the right-of-way and bridge from $25- to $35-million dollars. Details of the alternatives, the corridor study, and project updates can be found on the design-team website Keep550Moving.com.

The initial NMDOT corridor study didn’t stop at NM 528 but continued west to Paseo del Volcán, and proposed a thirty-mile connector to Interstate 40 west of Albuquerque. About six miles has been built in Rio Rancho with business interests and some local officials pressing for right-of-way acquisition and construction.

Both Torres and Lazar said they were concerned—”shocked,” Lazar said—that potential traffic impacts from Paseo del Volcán are not included in the US 550 corridor study. The MR-COG 2035 analysis ranked Paseo del Volcán far down a list of needed projects, Torres said.

“I’m not sure [Paseo del Volcán] is going to happen, but there’s a full-court press now by some elected officials to leapfrog the list,” Torres added.


The Republican Party of Sandoval County Is Announcing Its Call

Calling for the 2016 Pre Primary Convention to be held on January 19 for the purpose of electing delegates to the State Pre Primary Convention. Any Republican registered to vote in Sandoval County is eligible to attend. A County Central Committee Meeting will be on held prior to the Convention. Ward caucuses will be held in conjunction with the convention.

The event takes place at Sadie's at the Star, 54 James Dam Road, in Bernallio. Central Committee starts at 6:00 p.m.; the Convention/Ward caucuses start at approximately 6:15 p.m. The entry fee is $25 per attendee. Food will be available for purchase off the regular menu.


Land grant President Wayne Sandoval affixes an official seal to the agreement he and Santa Ana Pueblo Gov. Lawrence A. Montoya just signed pledging cooperation in trying to acquire federal lands in Placitas.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Pueblo, land grant join forces in pursuit of federal land

—Bill Diven

The complex history of New Mexico reached a milestone recently as land grant heirs and tribal leaders formally joined forces to acquire nearly 4,400 acres of federal land that may become available in Placitas.

In a December 17 ceremony at Santa Ana Pueblo, Governor Lawrence Montoya and Wayne Sandoval, president of the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant Board of Trustees, signed a memorandum of understanding to guide their joint effort. The agreement says they will work together to acquire four Bureau of Land Management parcels for wildlife and historical purposes and not develop them for commercial uses.

The centerpiece is 3,142 acres known as the Buffalo Tract in northwest Placitas extending from the pueblo on the west to the site of the original eighteenth-century Placitas on the east.

“We have a deep connection to this property just east of us,” Montoya said. “We’ve come hand in hand to share the property we’re looking at.”

When the BLM first said the tract might be put up for disposal, the pueblo began working to acquire what it considers its aboriginal lands, he added.

“The Buffalo Tract has massive historical significant to us,” said land grant Vice President Rebecca Correa. “That is where our history began… I love the idea that we have two cultures coming together.”

Under their joint vision, Santa Ana would dedicate the western part of the tract to wildlife as part of the established corridor connecting the Sandia and Jemez mountains. Some limited open-space uses might also be allowed, Montoya said.

The land grant plans a living-history farmstead representing all the state’s land grants and including open space for recreation.

Others also are interested in the land, however, and are waiting for the BLM to release an updated plan for managing resources overseen by its Albuquerque office. That covers about 757,000 surface acres plus 3.6 million acres of subsurface mineral rights spread across six counties.

The draft update of the 1986 plan was released in 2012, and the BLM now says the final plan is expected to be released for comment early this year. Alternatives range from no action to weighting toward conservation or development with the preferred alternative a balance of those.

By law the BLM is tasked with multiple-use on public lands and generating revenue where it can.

Besides the Buffalo Tract, BLM controls a small parcel in northeast Placitas, adjacent to San Felipe Pueblo, about two hundred acres, surrounded by residential development in central Placitas and the nine-hundred-acre Crest of Montezuma, the ridge defining eastern Placitas and under consideration for transfer to the U.S. Forest Service.

San Felipe Pueblo has expressed interest in the Buffalo Tract and part of its ancestral homelands while advocates for the free-roaming horses of Placitas see it as a potential sanctuary. Commercial interests have yet to speak up, but sand-and-gravel miners are seen as likely bidders if the estimated one billion dollars in recoverable materials under part of the Buffalo Tract are offered for development

 
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