Mora County, New Mexico, told the oil and gas industry "no thanks" this spring when commissioners passed the nation's first county-wide ban on fracking.
Due to water safety concerns, much of the rural ranching community supports the ordinance. But some are worried the county is losing a chance to boost its struggling economy.
Standing on the banks of the Rio Agua Negra, farmer Gilberto Quintana looks out in disbelief. There's no water in this river, and there hasn't been for months.
“This is the first year I've seen it this bad. I've seen it where it stops for a little bit but comes back, but it didn't even start this year. It stayed dry and it’s been dry, and nothing’s changing," Quintana said.
The riverbed is so dry the ground is beginning to crack, and the smell of smoke from a nearby wildfire wafts through the air.
The signs of severe drought are hard to miss here in Mora County, and with surface water supplies running dangerously low, residents are relying primarily on groundwater.
“We didn’t want to see our aquifers polluted, because if that becomes our only source of water, then we really become messed up," Quintana said.
That reliance on clean water to both live and make a living spurred leaders of this small community in energy-rich Northern New Mexico to pass the nation’s first county-wide ban on hydraulic fracturing.
County Commission Chairman John Olivas estimates that about 95 percent of county residents support the ordinance.
“What we have left is our well water and our aquifers, and when industry is wanting to come in and do any type of fracking or oil and gas extraction, you know I think it was up to us as the people, the leadership here in our community to go ahead and pass an ordinance," Olivas said.
But energy economist Bernard Weinstein said the ordinance could deprive Mora County the possibility of high-paying jobs.
“Here you have a depressed economy with an opportunity to add a new dimension," Weinstein said.
With an unemployment rate more than double the state average, Weinstein said those jobs could help.
“They create a lot of wealth and a fair amount of ancillary development. It's not just the oil and gas drilling and production, it’s the housing that goes with it, it’s the transportation it’s the retail it’s the trade, everything that develops around an energy center," Weinstein said.
New Mexico’s oil and gas industry is already established. But right now, the low price of natural gas has kept many developers from moving into this section of the state. As prices increase, as industry experts are anticipating, the county could miss out on a significant amount of production.
“We just think that Mora County is forgoing what could be a tremendous positive long term," said Wally Drangmeister of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
It’s hard to know exactly how much gas is beneath the ground, but Drangmeister said even if it amounts to just 1 percent of the state's natural gas supply, that could translate to almost 700 jobs.
He said he understands Mora County’s concerns with groundwater contamination. And while Drangmeister acknowledges that no industrial procedure is risk-free, he insists the process is safe.
“The oil and gas industry is very concerned with water and the process that we’ve been using across the state for going on 50 years, 60 years now has been very effective in protecting groundwater," Drangmeister said.
So far there have been no documented cases of groundwater contamination from the act of fracking in New Mexico, but the waste from fracking is a different story.
According to a state study, there were more than 400 cases of groundwater contamination between the mid 1980s and early 2000s because of the way fracking waste was stored.
But Drangmeister said many of the sites used in that study had not been operational in decades and were not a good representation of the industry’s current practices.
Back on the banks of the Rio Agua Negra, Quintana said despite the economic repercussions, he’s happy Mora County has taken a stand with it’s ban on fracking.
“We’re land rich, Mother Earth rich, and we don’t want to be economically rich if it means that we are going to destroy this land. And that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to take," he said.
So far, the ban remains unchallenged by industry, but it is uncertain whether the ordinance is strong enough to hold up in court.