On Wednesday evening, students, baby boomers, dogs, kids and organizers for the Albuquerque March for Science spread across a corner of Bataan Park, making signs, trying on yellow T-shirts and getting to know one another. When they rally in downtown Albuquerque on Saturday, expect their protest signs to be clever. Or very nerdy. In the park, participants were drawing inspiration from Isaac Newton, Jane Goodall and Neil deGrasse Tyson. One sign read, “Einstein was a refugee.”
The nonpartisan event, which is planned for Washington, D.C. and hundreds of cities around the United States, is modeled on the Women’s March in January.
I’ve been reporting on environment issues for almost 15 years, and during most of that time, it hasn’t exactly been a breaking news beat. There are disasters like wildfires or the Gold King Mine spill. But for the most part, covering issues like drought, climate change and energy policy doesn’t usually involve a race to deadline. It seems like that’s been changing lately, however. Part of that change is due to the Trump administration.
Last week, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas joined a coalition to oppose the Trump administration’s attempts to delay the U.S. Court of Appeals from making a decision on the Clean Power Plan. That 2015 plan would have helped states reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Utilities, the coal industry and 24 states immediately sued to stop the plan from being implemented. The appeals court unanimously denied a motion to stay the rule, but in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to issue a stay pending the appeals court decision. Then, at the end of March Trump ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and revoke the Clean Power Plan, which would have required states to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
After the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 contaminated the Animas River, farmers, local residents, businesses and the Navajo Nation filed claims against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Contractors with the agency caused the spill of mining waste into the river. At the time, claimants pegged their economic losses at $1.2 billion. According to the AP, which filed Freedom of Information Act requests to view the claims, the total is now $420 million, not $1.2 billion: A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million. It’s still uncertain whether the White House and Congress — both now controlled by the GOP — are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, even though Republicans were among the most vocal in demanding the EPA make good on the harm.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt wasted no time carrying out President Donald Trump’s executive order to administratively review and revoke the Clean Power Plan. On Thursday, Pruitt told state officials, including those in New Mexico, they have “no obligation” to comply with the rule. Related story: Orders from Trump, Zinke reverse nation’s climate and energy policy
In his letter to state officials, Pruitt wrote that the “days of coercive federalism are over.”
That plan would have required states to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed its implementation pending the outcome of a lawsuit against the EPA by utilities, the coal industry and 24 states. New Mexico, through Attorney General Hector Balderas, was one of 25 states, cities and counties to file a motion to intervene in support of keeping the plan.
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.