Where It’s a Crime to be an Oil Company
The capitalist press was thrilled last week to report the approach of a magical threshold. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared past 15,000 and newspapers across the country saw it as a sign of resiliency and recovery. “It’s a giddy time to be an investor,” sangThe New York Times. Meanwhile, at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, researchers were charting the approach of a far different, though linked, milestone. According to recent data, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will peak this month above 400 parts per million (ppm). Scientists see it as an alarming trend. “At this pace,” said climate scientist Ralph Keeling “we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.” If Keeling is right, in the decades to come we’ll be as far above livable levels of atmospheric CO2 than we were once below it.
Spiking levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are, of course, a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels. So it’s no surprise that as globalCO2 emissions storm past frightening thresholds, so too do the profits of the world’s largest oil companies. The combined windfall of BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell reached a new record of nearly $140 billion in profits in 2011. In the first half of 2012, they earned an average of nearly $350 million each day. Are these profits bankrolling investments in clean energy alternatives? Not a chance. The Big 5 plowed nearly a third of 2012 profits into stock buy-back plans that further enriched shareholders. Much of the rest was spent on new fossil-fuel infrastructure, ballooning executive salaries and lobbying efforts that continue to pay off in weakened environmental regulations.
And so as their Dow Jones value heats up, so does the atmosphere. Global emissions of CO2 exceeded 35 billion tons in 2012, a record increase over 2011’s record increase.
Despite the frightening prospects of a warming climate to human and non-human life on the planet, the Obama administration, like every U.S. administration before it, favors economic growth at all cost. In September of last year scientists studying Arctic sea ice announced that the Arctic had largely melted. It had shrunk to its smallest extent ever as satellite imagery revealed that frozen sea ice was now found in an area less than 2.2 million square miles, less than half what it was four decades ago. Some climate scientists now predict a completely ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer within two decades. Obama’s response? With Arctic Ocean-area oil and gas reserves estimated in the neighborhood of 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, his administration ordered the United States Geological Survey to study the economic opportunities an ice-free Arctic offers for U.S firms.
So much for encouraging clean energy. And as if Arctic oil exploration were not disturbing enough given current trends, noted climate scientist James Hansen appears even more concerned with the Canadian tar sands. He recently called the possibility of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a system that will bring Canadian tar sands oil to U.S. refineries, the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” As with the Arctic, Obama is enthusiastic and seems poised to light that fuse. In March of last year, he directed his “administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done.”
Despite the fact that the U.S. federal government, or any other national government in the world today for that matter, refuses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in any significant way, there appears still the possibility that government may yet do something meaningful. But it just might be the government you least expect.
Enter tiny Mora County, in northern New Mexico, which last week made it a crime to be an oil company.
The language of the “Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance” begins by recognizing Mora County as “a multi-cultural community with indigenous roots.” It then acknowledges its obligation to protect “the Earth, water, and air as a source of life for all living.” For this reason, the County Commission refused to sacrifice “the present and the future” to oil company profits and the “at-risk exploitation and pollution of the Earth, water and air” that follows from those profits.
“It shall be unlawful,” continues the ordinance, the only one of its kind in the U.S. “for any corporation to engage in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within Mora County.”
It’s a remarkable document for all kinds of reasons and particularly so because if any place could rationalize the devil’s bargain of oil and gas extraction, it would be Mora County. Nearly 20 percent of its less than 5,000 residents live below the poverty line. Jobs are scarce. And at a density of less than three people per square mile, it’s just the kind of poor, sparsely populated, rural place oil and gas firms like best.
But despite all this the County refuses to place the control of nature “in the hands of a corporate few,” a possibility that the ordinance defines as nothing more than “abuse and usurpation.”
The ordinance, it seems, has been long in the making. Commissioner John Olivas co- drafted an ordinance that was presented to the commission in September of 2011. Though it was not adopted at the time, the commission did pass a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in order to examine the question in more detail. During the moratorium the County conducted a series of working sessions in order to consider the possibility of a new oil and gas ordinance ban. Those efforts culminated last week when the commission voted to approve a total ban.
In the ordinance the County located its authority to make such a ban in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the U.S.—Mexican War, the Declaration of Independence, and the New Mexico Constitution. In addition the Mora County Comprehensive Land Use Plan identifies the requirement to protect the “Earth, water and air” as the most basic responsibility of government. In the language of the plan “the connection between our land, our water and our people has sustained our culture since the first settlements in Mora County, and our future depends on keeping these connections strong. Water is a vital link, which, if severed from the land, will also fragment our people from their land. The allocation of our limited water resources must recognize traditional subsistence agricultural and grazing activities as a priority over other types of more profitable land uses. Water is not just a commodity to be bought and sold, or exploited for short-term gains. Water is the lifeblood of Mora County’s traditions, culture and land use. A sustainable future for Mora County requires protection of the most valuable resource for our communities—the Water!”
The Mora County Commission issued a news release upon passing the ordinance calling on the New Mexico state legislature to follow suit in passing a bill that would ban oil and gas drilling and related activities statewide. But in a state largely captured by oil and gas interests, the possibilities of a statewide ban appear unlikely. In the 2013 legislative session, for example, Senator Carlos Cisneros (D-Taos) introduced Senate Bill 463 that would have done the opposite of the Mora ordinance and prohibited any municipalities or counties from regulating the “exploration, development, production and transportation of oil and gas and any associated remediation and reclamation activities related thereto.”
But while federal and state governments continue to abrogate their obligation to protect the environment, Mora County is not alone in its efforts to offer an alternative. Other local governments in New Mexico have begun to chip away at the power of oil and gas, an industry that has for so long dominated New Mexico politics. San Miguel County just south of Mora enacted its own one-year moratorium on oil and gas exploration, and its largest city, Las Vegas, banned fracking within city limits.
And with Shell holding leases on around 100,000 acres in the eastern part of the county, the ordinance seems likely to wind up in court. “I’d rather fight industry in court,” Olivas told the press “than clean up after them when they leave our community,”
Amid the necessary legalese and technical terminology of the ordinance, there can also be found an arresting section (Section 3.6) titled “La Querencia de la Tierra,” a phrase the ordinance defines as “the loving respect which Mora County residents have towards the land and Earth, which is rooted in our indigenous worldview—the Earth is living and holy, is the habitat that sustains us, and is composed of all natural & living systems, flora and fauna – interrelated, interdependent and complementary – which share our common destiny: The right to live free from contamination.”
David Correia is the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico and a co-editor of La Jicarita: An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico