October 7, 2019

Sec. Bernhardt threatens diversity of NM economics, out-of-step with NM values

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Laura Paskus/NMPR

Drilling wastewater ponds near Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico.

It should come as no surprise that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Tuesday visit to Santa Fe is as a featured guest at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s Annual Meeting.

As the head of the agency in charge of protecting our nation’s public lands, managing our natural resources and honoring our responsibilities to indigenous peoples, Bernhardt’s fossil fuel-first agenda is at odds with New Mexico’s goal of diversifying its economy and protecting our health, treasured public lands, and cultural values that New Mexicans hold dear.

In New Mexico, Bernhardt oversees 13 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands as well as National Parks and Monuments such as Chaco Canyon, Bandelier, Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands. These natural and cultural wonders are an essential part of our health, our heritage, and our outdoor recreation and tourism economies.

Under Bernhardt, the Interior Department has joined with the Environmental Protection Agency in rolling back air, land and water protections at an alarming rate. His agency has acted boosted one industry — the oil and gas industry — above all others in New Mexico allowing them to develop public lands at a breakneck pace while wasting our natural resources and putting our climate at risk through unfettered methane emissions at oil and gas sites.

The five New Mexico counties home to 97 percent of the state’s oil and gas wells are all at risk of violating ozone standards, putting children and the elderly at higher risk for respiratory diseases like emphysema and asthma. Yet both the Interior Department in 2018 and now EPA in 2019 have moved forward with plans that eliminate federal requirements on oil and gas companies to install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities.

Federal back-pedaling on methane runs counter to the evidence of just how hazardous methane is, as a major contributor to climate change and as a contributor to ozone pollution. And most troubling, Berhardt’s retreat ignores data showing methane emissions have been significantly under-reported by New Mexico oil and gas operators.

Oil and gas development also poses serious threats to cultural, historical and recreational resources sacred to communities and tribes, including the Greater Chaco Canyon area. The Interior Department has attempted to lease land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the park three times in the last two years, despite long-standing objections from tribal leaders.

A temporary reprieve expires in a few short months, and Bernhardt has so far failed to support the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, introduced by the New Mexico Senate and House delegation. The bill would provide a much-needed, increased level of protection for the Greater Chaco landscape and has broad support including from the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the Navajo Nation.

Finally, Bernhardt and the BLM have advanced Resource Management Plans that favor fossil fuel production over all other uses such as recreation and wildlife protection. Unchecked oil and gas development threaten critical wildlife habitat and corridors used by migrating species. That’s a conservation problem and an economic problem. New Mexico’s spectacular landscapes and rivers, its mesas, forests and deserts, support many industries, including a thriving outdoor recreation economy that depends on sustainably managed public lands. Federal mismanagement jeopardizes the 99,000 jobs and more than $600 million in state and local tax revenue generated by New Mexico’s outdoor recreation industry.

Contrast Bernhardt’s approach with Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s commitment to build a prosperous, diversified 21st-century economy that taps New Mexico’s significant potential for renewable energy and sustainable industries, and her climate leadership, including taking on an effort to reduce methane waste and pollution in the absence of federal help. Secretary Bernhardt promotes old thinking and an out-of-date view of public land management. We need a new approach for the future our children deserve.

Alexandra Merlino is the director of the Partnership for Responsible Business, a Santa Fe-based organization committed to educating business leaders, the general public and elected officials regarding the economic and community benefits of environmentally and socially responsible business.