April 19, 2018

Gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham on the environment

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Laura Paskus

Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham

This week, we’re running a series of interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates, each of whom answered questions about issues related to water, energy and climate change. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham currently serves as New Mexico’s congresswoman for the first congressional district. Before that, she worked in New Mexico state government as secretary of the Department of Aging and Long Term Services and the Department of Health.

NMPR: We’re coming off a bad winter and drought has returned to the state, what critical water issues are you keeping an eye on right now?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: I would actually disagree with your question.

It’s not that drought has returned, it’s that it’s becoming even more prevalent in the context of climate change, and this is a harsh new reality for many states in the Southwest and in the U.S.

Drought is a serious and significant concern, and our water resources have to be addressed so that they’re protected in the short-term and the long-term. So, you bet, I’m keeping an eye on it.

Let’s talk about some of the current challenges. One, the Rio Grande is already dry well before we’re typically having to deal with that, and you’ve got folks who are already rescuing silvery minnows right out of the Bosque del Apache. Because if we lose one part of the ecosystem, we lose the ecosystem for all other species, as well.

New Mexicans ought to be really clear that this is a crisis. We’re going to have more fires, and they’re going to burn longer and hotter. I think New Mexico needs a 50-year water management, conservation and new water technology plan. As governor, I’m dedicated to that.

As a congresswoman, we host a drought seminar every single year with water experts and water scientists to talk about strategies that will make a difference. I’m happy to talk about those specifics: conservation; changing some of our crops, so that we’re clear that they’re more drought-resistant crops; looking at brackish water reserves and making sure we’ve got the science behind it, making sure we don’t impact our freshwater. We’ve got to do much better individual conservation. We still can embrace our acequia cultural heritage, but we really have to rethink our water resources going forward. And that’s before I deal with our potential water liability to Texas, which every New Mexican ought to be concerned about. So, we have to find additional water resources to assist us in our endeavor.

We need a qualified State Engineer. We need an Interstate Stream Commission that is very clear about their role. And we’ve got to make sure we have more water management associations across the state. We need the [Council of Governments] to play a much broader role in state water resources.

[Water], quite frankly, is our greatest threat to economic recovery, economic success and the quality and well-being of every New Mexican. It’s resolvable. But it’s going to take shared sacrifices and shared work by everyone in the state of New Mexico. And I’m clear about what the feds need to do to support us in this endeavor, as well.

NMPR: Revenue from oil and gas is an important part of New Mexico’s economy. But the industry also has environmental, public health and climate impacts. How will your administration balance these different issues?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: We’ve got to create a balance. I like to quote [Colorado] Gov. [John] Hickenlooper, who talks about how New Mexico ceded its leadership on environmental issues and concerns with oil and gas.

We pick sides, and it is not the environmental side in New Mexico, and we should never have done that. We need them at the table. The governor should be involved, and should lead by example, a fair, balanced productive effort.

The best way to remove our reliance—we’re the third largest oil and gas producer in the country—is to include renewables, which is exactly the portfolio other states have undertaken, including Colorado. I want to take Hickenlooper at his word. I do believe we gave up our leadership position in that regard, and I intend to take it back and show Hickenlooper we can do it even better than Colorado. That’s why I’m promoting and will undertake a methane mitigation policy. I can give you $240 more million [by recovering methane that leaks from infrastructure or is flared]; there’s another place to look at early childhood education. I don’t love tying it all to this industry, but I want every capital investment boost possible while I clean up the environment.

[We need to be] moving into clean renewable energy, because that is the future of our environmental protection and energy needs in this state, and I expect New Mexico to lead that. That’s really the answer to making sure that we are getting our energy from a much cleaner source and moving away from a volatile economy and something that impacts our health outcomes and our environmental protections.

NMPR: Under Gov. Richardson, the state was moving forward with a number of climate change initiatives. Under Gov. Martinez, the state backed away from earlier commitments on climate change.  What will your administration do to address mitigation and adaptation issues with respect to climate change?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: Making sure that we have water protection, that we’re very clear about being environmentally responsive and responsible [and implementing] accountability measures for oil and gas: Richardson really pursued those. I remember working hand in hand, because it was my job [while working for the state] to deal with the health determinants and public health issues both for healthy high-quality air standards and water.

The one mistake that Richardson made, I think—I don’t know that he would agree with me—is when we were working so hard to not just mitigate, but to make a clean environment standards for the state, small oil and gas producers felt like they had no say in making sure that they could support those efforts. [That created a fight.] I really want to embrace that Colorado model and that means you have the governor in the room. We have to have better environmental protections. And [small producers] know how to get there, and [they] want [their] kids and [their] families to be in an environmentally sound community, so we’re going to do this together.

… I want to move us to a renewable portfolio that gets us to a 50 percent renewable standard by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040. I want to have New Mexico join the Paris Climate Accord, so that we are clearly aligned and identified as a leader on renewable energy sectors and on cleaning up and protecting the environment.

A good example is Kirtland [Air Force Base]. We’re not there [on cleanup]. I need to get involved far too often to make sure they don’t lag or languish their efforts on the jet fuel spill. For a long time, people decided that you had to take one side or the other: You either had to protect Kirtland—it’s an economic security issue, it’s an asset issue, it provides jobs—or you had to take on the jet fuel spill. These are not mutually exclusive. You have to protect the drinking water. The jet fuel must come out. And you can do that by supporting Kirtland and [using] the Air Force’s technology, which we are right now. Pump that water out now and treat it. And use the Environment Department, both the city and the state, and using the [Albuquerque-Bernalillo County] Water Utility Authority’s expertise to make sure it’s accountable and effective. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

I never understood why that somehow became an either/or decision-making process. Never. We could have been doing this a lot earlier if people had decided those are not mutually exclusive. Our drinking water, our groundwater—without it, you don’t get a Kirtland anyway.

We’ve allowed political thinking to pick sides. This governor’s been the worst at it, in my opinion: it’s winners and losers. Most of us end up losers in that design. I’m looking at ways to make New Mexicans winners over and over and over again in all of our energy decisions and policies moving forward.

NMPR: In the past seven years, a number of the state agencies focused on natural resources, like the New Mexico Environment Department, the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission, have lost a lot of expert employees, seen budget cuts, stopped speaking with the press, and backed off conservation programs and regulation enforcement over the past seven years. What direction will these agencies take under your leadership?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: You probably know this about me, but I worked for three different administrations. You don’t get to do that unless you’re a real, effective advocate for the department you run and the people you serve.

Governors can be a little competitive, and they’re very interested in making their own mark, and [they] sometimes make decisions about their cabinets that I think can be quite risky.

I focused on my constituents, and I was a strong advocate for my department—[the Department of Aging and Long-Term Services]—and I tease on the campaign trail, every single governor fired me at least once, and would always reappoint me. They would get disappointed and wanted it to be clear that I worked for them, that I was a subordinate. But if their ideas didn’t improve the quality of life of the people I was supposed to be advocating for and serving, I wouldn’t do it. I would try to find another way to meet that goal.

This is a governor who I think missed an opportunity to have capable, qualified people who [were] advocates for the department and for the state, and were given both the independence and the tools and resources to do their jobs.

…What I believe was part of their agenda was to destroy [government] or [cause people to question] government credibility, just like on the federal [level]. You want to have a question about whether good government can ever exist and whether there’s any public credibility and you don’t allow the good folks to do their jobs. You don’t allow for advocates. And you often put people in jobs you know they cannot succeed in.

I want the most qualified cabinet, who will tell the truth, who will take me on if I am crafting a policy or a strategy or an idea that doesn’t meet the best interest of the state, or is the right way to get there. I want folks who will tell me and who will take me on and who will do everything they can to restore good government to the state.

I am motivated, because I have worked in good government. I know that it’s achievable. It’s one of the primary reasons, quite frankly, that I’m coming back, because I know how to get that done. I know how to run the bureaucracy. I know how to lead in government. I did it at the county. I’m doing it at the federal level. I did it at the state level for 18 years and I’m dedicated to doing it again.

I have never seen [morale] this bad in my entire career [in state government]. … It’s very damaging to allow an apathetic, negative culture. Good people leave, and bad people stay. And folks who just need a little support to really maximize their potential in their jobs are overlooked. It is not fair to those public workers, and then it’s not fair to us, because they’re serving us.

I know it’s not going to be an easy task. But it’s something I have a lot of expertise in, and I’m good at it….

NMPR: I’m curious if you’ve thought about Texas v. New Mexico [the Supreme Court lawsuit on the Rio Grande] and what steps your administration could take to get our state out of the bind we are in?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: The governor has to insert herself, legally and productively, into this effort. I fear that getting a decision handed down by the Supreme Court could be disastrous. I’m not sure I’m going to get a chance to do that. [Justices could make a decision], some folks fear, as early as this summer.

No matter what happens, whether the decision is handed down or not, we’re going to have to talk to the states and the stakeholders, and we’re going to have to think about ways to work together. I disagree that we should have opened up this lawsuit, and I think that we didn’t do ourselves any favors in the early 1900s, when we identified that we should be giving more water to Texas.

Water issues are incredibly complicated—when you look at river flows and upstream and downstream issues, requirements, species protections, mitigation, farmers, ranchers, drinking water, agricultural water, indigenous rights, landholders rights—including acequias and land grant holders…Then there’s New Mexico’s law. People don’t understand that we’re still under Spanish law. We’re not a common law state, so there are real complications about water adjudication.

So I would reinsert the governor’s office, but I would also make sure there are legal experts [involved].

At the end of the day, if we don’t have the resources, monetarily or with water, to support Texas in a direct way, they lose anyway. They just keep suing us. We need to think about proactive strategies to resolve these issues. That is why I’m looking at a 50 year water plan and looking at ways to reduce our water use in many ways, to look at brackish water supplies to help mitigate some of these efforts. Because climate change is real, and it is here. And even when you’re not [in] a 50 year or 100 year drought, every issue is exacerbated.

NMPR: What didn’t I ask you about, or what environment or natural resource issues in New Mexico don’t get enough attention?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: We do this either/or [mentality]. So when I talked about renewables, where it’s all on the commercial side…, we could do so much more for individuals.

We have to offset this terrible tariff decision by the federal government. We can create incentives…[for] individual alternative energy use and we want to make sure we’re leading that in state government and on the commercial side.

We want to join every regional alternative energy group, regional transmission authority. We want to make sure [we’re a part of] interstate energy markets. We want to highlight that New Mexico could export more renewable energy because all the major electric grids come together in this state.

We have not taken any of our potential in any context. If we do all of those things, we in fact could be the state that has the most energy efficient, renewable energy movement in the country.

We have all the necessary elements to be that leader. We lead in clean energy technology, let’s harness it. We can lead, and we aren’t now, in energy efficiency. My God, we have 300 sunny days [a year]. We could lead in clean energy production. If you look at job growth, it outpaces by far in renewables than it does in oil and gas, even though oil and gas still has a larger employment footprint in the state. It’s because we failed to make investments here. That means we have failed New Mexico families who could have high-paying productive jobs, and we haven’t protected the environment. It makes no sense.

We have everything. Now let’s put it to work for New Mexicans.

A note from NMPR: All of this week’s candidate Q&A’s were edited for clarity and length, although we did not edit the meaning of candidates’ answers. We did not include, however, tangents or off-topic issues candidates raised during the course of the conversations. It’s also important to note that the candidate’s answers aren’t annotated and we don’t point out any possible inaccuracies or misstatements.   

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