By 11 a.m. Central Time on Jan. 20—Inauguration Day—Ron Curry had cleared out of his Dallas office at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “You know when you walk in the door that if you serve the full term, you’re expected to walk out the door when the new president is inaugurated,” said Curry, who served as EPA’s Region 6 administrator for just over four years. “I’ve known all along that would be the case.”
Before his time with the EPA, Curry served as secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) under Gov. Bill Richardson. A political appointee, Curry left his positions knowing, in both cases, the incoming administrations had a bone to pick with environmental regulators.
The Trump administration is blocking a new rule that would have changed how royalties from private coal mines on federal and tribal lands are calculated. When announcing the new rules in 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior officials said they would provide greater consistency to private companies and higher royalty payments to taxpayers and tribal governments. Mining companies opposed the changes and sued in federal court. As reported last week by the Associated Press: Rules in place since the 1980s have allowed companies to sell their fuel to affiliates and pay royalties to the government on that price, then turn around and sell the coal at higher prices, often overseas. Under the suspended rule change, the royalty rate would be determined at the time the coal is leased, and revenue will be based on the price paid by an outside entity, rather than an interim sale to an affiliated company.
In recent years, spills of crude oil, natural gas and drilling wastewater have increased even more rapidly than production has grown. Yet the state of New Mexico doesn’t fine or sanction oil and gas companies that pollute water. A bill before the state legislature seeks to change that. If passed, the bill wouldn’t create new rules or regulations. Instead, it would allow the state’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) to impose penalties on polluting companies.
Last week, NM Political Report covered the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s temporary freeze on contracts and grants. When word hit the streets that the EPA was freezing new grants and contracts, the news sowed confusion among employees of the agency as well as those who receive the grants and contracts. Almost half the agency’s $8.6 billion budget in 2016 went to grants for states and nonprofits. On Monday, we followed up with EPA Region 6 director of external affairs David Gray. As of Monday, he wrote in an email, the EPA has completed its review of grant programs.
He added that all grants are “proceeding normally and nothing has been delayed.”
That includes environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants for states and tribes.
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management auctioned off the rights to drill for oil and gas on 843 acres in northwestern New Mexico. The sale of these particular leases, in the Chaco Canyon region, had been postponed due to opposition from environmental and indigenous groups. The leases are in Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties. According to a story in the Santa Fe New Mexican, the rights sold for $3 million and at least 15 companies bid during the online auction run by Energy Net, an online oil and gas marketplace. The BLM’s next auction for New Mexico oil and gas leases is planned for July.
It was a tumultuous week for federal employees. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced a hiring freeze across the government. The administration also suspended social media posts from at least five agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On top of that, news trickled out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was freezing all new grants and contracts. While hiring freezes aren’t uncommon, the EPA’s stay appears to be unusual, if not unprecedented.
The numbers from around the globe are in, and it’s official: 2016 was the hottest year on record, again. According to independent analysis from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2016 was the third year in a row to break temperature records. The New York Times collected AccuWeather data for more than 5,000 cities, including Albuquerque, to illustrate temperature and precipitation changes. Albuquerque’s average temperature last year was 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, while precipitation fell 2.8 inches short of normal. Globally, the average temperature has risen by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s.
Today, Gov. Susana Martinez presided over a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico. The underground nuclear waste repository is officially back in action, nearly three years after two fires shut down operations. According to a story in last week’s Carlsbad Current-Argus, the facility’s employees started moving waste into the salt caverns last Wednesday: Rick Fuentes, president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers Union and waste handler at the site, confirmed that two pallets of low-level radioactive waste were emplaced near Room 5 in Panel 7 at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. “It went great,” Fuentes, who did not assist in the waste emplacement, said. “We’re excited to be back to work.”
In its final report on how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is affecting water supplies, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency said the common oil and gas drilling technology can, in fact, contaminate drinking water supplies. The report was released earlier this week. New Mexico has tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. And while the practice has received more public attention in recent years, companies have used the technology here for decades. During the process, operators inject wells with chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, petroleum distillates, ethanol, sodium chloride and trimethylbenzene.
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.