Last week, Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham started announcing appointments to top spots in state government. Among the positions she announced was her choice for secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), Sarah Cottrell Propst. Most recently, Propst worked as executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance, a nonprofit trade association of renewable energy companies in six western states, including New Mexico. During the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, Propst served as his energy and environment advisor, and then as deputy secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). She came to New Mexico after earning a master’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Shortly after Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected governor, she started assembling her transition teams for various state agencies. In November, Lujan Grisham announced that Sarah Cottrell Propst and Toby Velasquez will head the Natural Resources Committee, which reviews the agencies that oversee water, energy and environment issues. Velasquez is deputy director of New Mexico State Parks. Cottrell Propst is executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance and served as the energy and environmental policy advisor to Gov. Bill Richardson from 2006 to 2010. Over the weekend, Lujan Grisham announced transition teams for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department; the Environment Department; the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission.
As state agencies move forward with plans to study reusing wastewater from oil and gas drilling, some environmental and community groups want the administration to slow down. They’re concerned about the working group’s quick schedule and lack of transparency thus far on an issue they say demands careful study. This summer, New Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and formed a working group to figure out how wastewater might be reused within the oilfield itself—and someday, beyond it. As we reported last month, the state initiated the process with the EPA. Following the publication of that story, representatives from more than 15 environmental and community groups signed onto a letter to the EPA which said the agreement between the federal agency and the state violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and requesting the federal agency withdraw.
When drilling wells, operators inject chemicals, sand and water underground to create fissures that help move oil and natural gas to the wellhead more efficiently. That practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses a lot of water. And it leaves behind a lot of water, too. In 2015, even before the Permian Basin really started booming, industry produced 900 million barrels of wastewater. That’s about 116,000 acre feet—or almost all of the water currently stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir.
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.
This week, NM Political Report is publishing interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates about water, energy, climate change and other environment issues. Throughout election season, candidates typically talk a lot about jobs, education, the economy and what their opponents might be saying or doing. Those are undoubtedly important issues. But so are conflicts over water, the fact that the southwestern United States is warming at nearly double the global rate, and chronically low morale at some of the state’s most important agencies. We didn’t tailor the questions we asked to elicit campaign promises or to paint candidates into an ideological corner.
This week, the Trump administration announced it was imposing new tariffs on imported solar panels and modules—a move that will hit installation companies and consumers alike. But in the New Mexico State Legislature a trio of Democratic state representatives wants to give solar development in New Mexico a boost. House Bill 87 would give people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. If passed, the bill would authorize the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to pay out up to $5 million in tax credits for the year. The bill is sponsored by Reps.
Oil and gas companies reported fewer toxic spills in New Mexico last year than in 2015. According to the Center for Western Priorities’ 2016 Spill Tracker, companies reported 1,310 spills in 2016. Most of those occurred in Lea and Eddy counties, the site of most drilling activity in the state. The nonpartisan group’s Spill Tracker is based on publicly-available records from New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division, which is within the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. According to the Spill Tracker, five companies were responsible for nearly 40 percent of all spills of crude oil, natural gas and produced water.
Each announcement by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about his picks for cabinet positions flares public interest. Whether it’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department or former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the appointments provide insight into what the businessman’s presidency might mean for America and the rest of the world. Those appointments will have significant impacts here in New Mexico, which has 23 sovereign Native American tribes, millions of acres of federal lands and an abundance of natural resources like oil, gas, coal, copper and uranium. Not only that, but in the past five years, the state’s environmental regulations and agencies—which might have been able to hold the line against some of the incoming president’s policies—have been weakened during the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. When it comes to issues like science and environmental regulations, high-level staff picks have long-term impacts on everything from pollution trends and energy policy to the rate at which the Earth’s atmosphere is warming.
After more than a decade of freelancing for magazines, newspapers and radio, I’m settling down. Beginning this month, readers of NM Political Report will start seeing more news stories about water, environmental justice, public lands, wildlife, nuclear waste, climate change and energy. As much as I have loved working with different editors and teams over the years, I am relieved that NM Political Report has decided it needs to be covering statewide environmental issues regularly. During a time when issues like climate change, water and environmental regulations have become increasingly important, newspapers nationwide have cut their science and environment beats. On top of that, strapped newsrooms often don’t have the resources—or the subscribers—to justify covering issues that are so important to rural communities.