OCATE, N.M. — Sitting in the tidy living room of the home they built themselves, Sandra and Roger Alcon inventory what they see as the bounty of their lives: freedom, family, community, land, animals … and water.
“We’ve lived off the land for five generations,” said Roger Alcon, 63, looking out on a northern New Mexico landscape of high mesas, ponderosa pines and black Angus cattle. “We have what we need. We’ve been very happy, living in peace.”
Wells are the Alcons’ only source of water. The same is true for everyone else in Mora County, which is why last month this poor, conservative ranching region of energy-rich New Mexico became the first county in the nation to pass an ordinance banning hydraulic fracturing, the controversial oil and gas extraction technique known as “fracking” that has compromised water quantity and quality in communities around the country.
“I don’t want to destroy our water,” Alcon said. “You can’t drink oil.”
In embracing the ban, landowners turned their back on potentially lucrative royalty payments from drilling on their property and joined in a groundswell of civic opposition to fracking that is rolling west from Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania in the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation.
Pittsburgh became the first U.S. city to outlaw fracking in November 2010 after it came to light that an energy company held a lease to drill under a beloved city cemetery.
Since then, more than a dozen cities in the East have passed similar ordinances.
The movement leapfrogged west last summer when the town of Las Vegas, N.M., took up the cause, calling for a halt to fracking until adequate regulations protecting public health are adopted.
It has now reached California, where communities are considering similar bans.
Culver City — home to the nation’s largest urban oil field — is drafting oil and gas regulations that call for a moratorium on fracking. Citizen groups in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara are preparing their own community rights ballot measures aimed at outlawing the procedure.
Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture rock formations, releasing oil and gas that is hard to reach with conventional drilling methods. A blizzard of applications to sink wells using fracking is spurring a nationwide energy rush sometimes called the “shale gale.”
Among the leading concerns of opponents is the absence of any federal law requiring companies to fully identify the chemicals in their fracking fluids. Such formulas are considered by the industry to be a trade secret. Community-based anti-fracking campaigns — citing public health issues — call for complete disclosure of injection fluids.
Many New Mexico counties welcome oil and gas production, an industry that adds to the tax base and employment rolls. But in sparsely populated Mora County, where 67% of the 5,000 residents are Spanish-speaking, people cherish their culture and way of life.
Sandra Alcon said her neighbors don’t care about mineral rights or oil money. They are angry about the way energy companies’ “land men” treated them. Residents here are seen as easy marks for hustlers offering little compensation for oil and water rights, she said.
“They know we have a lot of elderly and rural people; some don’t speak English,” she said. “They don’t know that some of us went to college and some of us have the Internet.
“I may look stupid, but I’m not. I know what they are doing.”
Mora County, using its authority to regulate commercial activity, specifically barred corporations from fracking. The ordinance also established that citizens have a right to a safe and clean environment.
County Commission Chairman John Olivas said the ordinance is not a referendum on oil and gas. Rather, he said, it “is all about water,” estimating that 95% of the county’s residents support the ban, although some argue that the jobs and income that accompany drilling would help the depressed area.
Olivas, a hunting and fishing guide, said he grew up watching his parents work in the uranium mines of eastern New Mexico. When the mines played out, towns shriveled up.
Chasing that boom-and-bust economy is not worth despoiling an environment that remains remarkably untouched and provides a sustainable living for most people here, he said.
“We are one of the poorest counties in the nation, yes, but we are money-poor, we are not asset-poor,” Olivas said. “We’ve got land, we’ve got agriculture, we’ve got our heritage and we’ve got our culture.”
The California community closest to adopting an anti-fracking ordinance is Culver City, which includes a portion of the 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field. More than 1 million people live within five miles of the field, where some 1,600 wells have been drilled since 1925.
The City Council is considering a fracking moratorium, even though only 10% of the field is within the city limits. The bulk of the wells are in unincorporated Los Angeles County.
City officials and residents say they are concerned about air and water quality, as well as about earthquakes being triggered by drilling at 8,000 to 10,000 feet — the depths where the untapped oil is found.
Low-magnitude earthquakes have been associated with fracking, but Ed Memi, a spokesman for PXP, which operates in the Inglewood Field, called suggestions that high-pressure drilling causes earthquakes “hysterical accusations.”
“There is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has caused felt seismic activity anywhere in California,” Memi said. “The practice of hydraulic fracturing has been subjected to dozens of studies in recent years, and the fundamental safety of the technology is well understood by scientists, engineers, regulators and other technical experts.”
But Meghan Sahli-Wells, Culver City’s vice mayor, said the city needs to see more study of fracking’s impact before it could be allowed.
“I grew up in L.A. All my life I’ve heard about air-quality problems, earthquakes and water issues,” Sahli-Wells said. “It just so happens that fracking really hits on the three major challenges of this area. Frankly, I’ve been waiting for people to wake up and say, ‘We are fracking on a fault line? Is this really in our interests?’”
If Culver City moves forward with a moratorium, it could take months to complete, she said.
Fracking is unregulated in California, and no accurate figures exist detailing how many of the state’s wells are completed using the technique.
A number of anti-fracking bills are pending before the state Assembly, and statewide regulations are being finalized by the state Department of Conservation.
Sahli-Wells endorses legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City) that calls for a moratorium on fracking in California until a comprehensive six-year study can be undertaken.
“Look before you leap” legislation is pending in other states.
On a recent day back in Mora County, Roger Alcon drove his ranch with his herding dog, Pepper, at his side. He said the region’s aquifer has been depleted by oil and gas operations in the region. He sees no reason to hasten the water decline.
Alcon pointed out the truck window toward the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains.
“We have what we need,” he said. “To me, the fresh air and the land, and water. It’s better than money.”