By: John Olivas
In her latest missive about the state of affairs in Mora County (“Protecting Mora County from Fracking,” May 17), Commissioner Paula Garcia again attempts to rewrite history around efforts by residents to stop oil and gas drilling in Mora County. As the chairman of the Mora County commissioners during the time period about which she writes, however, my vantage point is much different.
In 2014, Mora residents began to gather to talk about the need to stop oil and gas drilling in the county. More than 30 meetings were held in which I, along with other Mora County residents, began to learn the hard fact that the oil and gas laws were written to elevate the “rights” of oil and gas companies to access Mora’s resources above the rights of residents to stop that drilling. Instead of doing what most other communities have done — surrendering to those companies by writing rules that explicitly allow those companies to drill — we decided to directly challenge the companies’ authority to override us in the first place.
Working with environmental lawyers from across the United States, we pioneered the first county law in the nation that not only banned the extraction of all hydrocarbons in Mora, but that directly challenged the authority of the oil and gas companies to challenge Mora’s authority to adopt that ban. We saw that protecting Mora’s water and land meant not only passing a ban on oil and gas extraction, but required an attack on the anti-democratic system of law that we have — one that allows those companies to legally override protective laws adopted by the residents of cities, towns, villages and counties across the United States.
As a newly emerging leader in the national movement toward advancing community rights, Mora received free help from lawyers across the country who were excited about taking a new approach — one that treated our problem not just as an oil and gas problem, but as a democracy and civil rights problem.
At every turn, Paula Garcia voted against the county law, even though she understood — as well as I did — that the problem wasn’t oil and gas, the problem was that the system of law prevented us from doing what our constituents wanted, which was to protect Mora’s water and land by banning the extraction of fossil fuels.
Paula voted against the law because she said that we had to live with the system of law that we had, even though that system guarantees that we will get drilled. She was and is a proponent for putting rules in place that regulate how oil and gas drilling will proceed, rules that, to me, seem to place county approval on the extraction itself.
I believe that we owe more than that to the place where we live. That extraction of oil and gas, no matter how tightly regulated, will eventually pollute our water and land; and the very extraction and combustion of fossil fuels will continue to exacerbate climate change.
As recognized in Paula’s article, of course, courts that have upheld corporate “rights” for the last century are the least apt to uphold new advances in the law. But that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to challenge those companies that seek to exploit us, or the courts that shield those companies from us. And if the courts won’t protect us, we must protect ourselves, perhaps by doing as other communities across the country have started to do — decriminalizing civil disobedience over these issues.
If we continue to surrender to the companies and to the courts, nothing will change. It would be as if those seeking to free the slaves or win voting rights for women simply threw in the towel after a bad court ruling.
Unfortunately, accepting our role as mere regulators of a foregone conclusion that Mora will be drilled, would be identical to that. Saying that “we need to enact legally defensible protections for Mora County” is as much a white flag as doing the drilling ourselves — it places us on our knees to a system of law that does not recognize the “we the people” of Mora, only the right of the corporations to take our resources.
As a historically colonized community, we’re used to that. But it doesn’t mean we have to accept it. It doesn’t mean that we have to continue to live on our knees.
John Olivas is former chairman of the Mora County Board of County Commissioners.