Given the fire hose of news from Washington, D.C. every day, New Mexicans can be forgiven if they miss stories about environmental overhauls from the White House and funding mishaps in Congress. But ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to climate-changing methane emissions, less money for public lands and parks or the intergenerational impacts of mercury exposure.
At NM Political Report, we’re continuing to track the federal changes that affect New Mexicans. Here are a few of the most important issues that popped up recently.
Udall: Climate change ‘moral test of our age’
At the end of last month, Congress let the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapse. First authorized by Congress in 1964, the fund directs revenue from oil and gas drilling toward projects that conserve land and water. The idea is that as the nation depletes some natural resources, it conserves others. And the money is used for all sorts of projects in national parks and forests, state and local parks and also for drinking water and water quality projects across the country. For decades, the fund enjoyed widespread bipartisan support. (Probably because states and local governments all benefit from the fund.) But this year? Congress couldn’t agree on its reauthorization and let the fund die.
In New Mexico, the fund has invested more than $300 million, said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat. The failure of Congress to reauthorize it will hurt tourism and the outdoor recreation economy, he said, and leave important conservation projects in limbo.
And this is part of a trend. Congressional Republicans continue to wage attacks on bedrock environmental laws such as Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act of 1906, while the White House directs federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior to weaken public health protections and prioritize energy development over other uses of public lands.
“The administration’s attack on public lands—from rolling back monuments which are sacred to pueblos and tribes in New Mexico, to leasing oil and gas near Chaco Canyon without public input or tribal consultation—will do irreparable damage to our most treasured open spaces and breathtaking natural landscapes,” Udall said. “Taken together, all these actions threaten our economy, our landscape, our health—and our way of life in the West.”
Udall also said New Mexico is on the “frontlines in the fight against climate.”
“In recent years, New Mexico has had a front row seat to the damage inflicted by anti-environment policies: We’ve seen more severe droughts, reduced snowpack, raging wildfires, and hotter temperatures devastate our way of life,” Udall said. “The administration’s policies undermining our efforts to fight climate change will disproportionately affect rural, border and Native communities that are particularly vulnerable to the impact these changes will have on water resources, agriculture, air pollution and public health.”
Despite mocking the idea of climate change, and referring to it as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese government, Trump’s own administration recently acknowledged climate change.
To justify the president’s decision to halt federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, a draft environmental impact statement acknowledges human-caused climate change and its inevitable impacts. As reported by the Washington Post, “The document projects that global temperature will rise by nearly 3.5 degrees Celsius above the average temperature between 1986 and 2005 regardless of whether Obama-era tailpipe standards take effect or are frozen for six years, as the Trump administration has proposed.”
In other words, the impacts of climate change, and a seven degree Fahrenheit temperature increase, are inevitable. Trying to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles is irrelevant.
Climate change is the “greatest threat our nation and world now confront,” Udall said, and the “moral test of our age.”
“The fact that those in positions of power understand that climate change is occurring yet refuse to take action is an absolute disgrace,” Udall said. “They have placed extreme ideology and profit over scientific evidence, sacrificing the well-being of current and future generations in the process.” He called the emissions standards issue “especially baffling,” given that most of the auto industry doesn’t support the rollbacks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Southwest is among the regions of the world warming most quickly. And that is already affecting water resources.
“In New Mexico, our scarce water resources are even more strained due to the impacts of climate change, where severe drought, raging wildfires, reduced snowpack and rising temperatures have resulted in a dramatic decrease in our water supply,” Udall said, noting that during 19 of the past 20 years, almost the entire state has experienced drought.
“This is threatening agriculture, tourism and recreation—some of the biggest drivers of New Mexico’s economy—and most importantly, our public health,” he said. “Climate change jeopardizes water security and water rights in rural and Native communities across the state, communities who live by the saying, ‘agua es vida.’”
EPA’s shimmering gift to the coal industry
In late Sept., the New York Times reported that, under the Trump administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finished a legal proposal to “dramatically weaken” a regulation designed to cut the amount of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants.
Specifically, it would repeal 2011 guidance showing that when power plants reduce mercury emissions, they also reduce other pollutants like soot and nitrogen oxide. The EPA had previously found the “co-benefits” of cutting pollutants that contribute to asthma and other respiratory diseases helped balance the cost of installing pollution control measures. That is, installing pollution controls on old plants costs money, but the public health benefits justified the costs.
According to the story:
The details of the rollback about to be proposed would also represent a victory for [EPA administrator Andrew] Wheeler’s former boss, Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of the Murray Energy Corporation, one of the nation’s largest coal companies. Mr. Murray, who was a major donor to President Trump’s inauguration fund, personally requested the rollback of the mercury rule soon after Mr. Trump took office, in a written “wish list” he handed to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The proposal would also hand a victory to the former clients of William Wehrum, the E.P.A.’s top clean air official and the chief author of the plan. Mr. Wehrum worked for years as a lawyer for companies that run coal-fired power plants, and that have long sought such a change.
The changes would apply to coal-fired power plants in the southwestern United States, too—plants that have contributed to air pollution problems in New Mexico and the Four Corners.
But mercury contamination spreads far and wide, as evidenced most clearly by the high levels of mercury found in the bodies and breast milk of women living in the Arctic, as well as in other mammals such as whales and polar bears. Mercury is a persistent heavy metal that travels its way up the food chain, accumulating in plankton and small fish, and then within the animals, including humans, that eat them. The further a species is up the food chain, the more mercury accumulates within the body and the more dangerous it becomes.
Anyone who fishes New Mexico’s lakes and rivers knows—or should know—about the advisories for how much fish can safely be eaten, given the levels of hazardous heavy metals such as mercury.
In the 1990s, the New Mexico Environment Department, Department of Health and Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) implemented a fish consumption advisory program. The program has had its ups and downs, depending on funding. But with EPA guidance, the state has issued fish consumption advisories for bodies of water.
According to a 2016 report from the three agencies, eating fish is the main way people are exposed to methylmercury, which is toxic at even very low exposure levels. If too much is consumed over time, according to the report, it damages the brain, nerves, kidney and may lead to other health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Moreover, according to the report:
The brain of fetuses, babies, and young children are most at risk as they are still developing. All prenatal effects of exposure to mercury have been found to be permanent. The developing fetus and breast-fed babies are vulnerable to toxic effects of their mother’s mercury exposure because many aspects of their development, particularly brain maturation, can be disturbed by the presence of mercury.
To read or download the 2018-2019 fish consumption advisory from NMDGF, visit: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/download/fishing/advisories/Fishing-Catch-Release-Eat-2018_19-NMDGF.pdf
EPA ousts children’s health advocate, ditches science advisor
The New York Times reported on two additional EPA issues recently. As the nation was riveted by the congressional testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, the Times reported an anonymous source revealed the agency’s plans to dissolve the Office of the Science Advisor.
When asked by the Times about those plans, a public information officer for EPA emailed a statement from Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, who said the decision would “combine offices with similar functions” and “eliminate redundancies.”
In addition, the EPA placed the head of its Office of Children’s Health, Dr. Ruth Etzel, on administrative leave, though not for any disciplinary reasons. According to the story, “As the head of an office that regularly pushed to tighten regulations on pollution, which can affect children more powerfully than adults, Dr. Etzel had clashed multiple times with Trump administration appointees who sought to loosen pollution rules.”
Tuesday, the paper ran an op-ed from public health experts condemning that move, saying they feared it was a move toward closing the office altogether or minimizing its role in tightening regulations that protect children. The two-decades old office has played an “outsize role in safeguarding children’s health,” they wrote, through work with teachers, school boards and doctors, as well as by its insistence on strengthening laws that protect children from air pollution as well as chemical exposure.
Exposure to chemicals is linked to a wide array of pediatric diseases. Lead and mercury can cause brain damage with loss of intelligence. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are linked to reductions in children’s intelligence and alterations in behavior. Baby boys exposed in the womb to phthalates, a chemical used in plastics, are at risk of birth defects in their reproductive organs and behavioral abnormalities. Prenatal exposure to brominated flame retardants, used in electronics and furniture, is linked to I.Q. reduction and shortening of attention span.
Even though things like lead paint and lead additive in gasoline were banned decades ago, lead poisoning is still a problem in the United States, particularly among children. As we have covered at NM Political Report, in some New Mexico communities the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood is even higher than in Flint, Michigan, where lead in drinking water triggered an ongoing public health emergency.
Interior Department to refuge managers: give up your guns
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stripped national wildlife refuge managers of their guns. If that seems like a strange thing for the pro-gun administration to do, consider the effect of the new policy: Those refuge managers will no longer act in any enforcement capacity, as “dual-function officers,” to stop trespassers, poachers or other law-breakers.
According to a story in The Hill:
“It means there will be lots of violations, wildlife violations as in over-bagged hunting areas, damaged fences, signs, roads and all kinds of damage to the environment. If there is no one there to enforce the law, that would spread like wildfire,” said Kim Hanson, who retired from FWS in 2008 after more than 30 years at the agency. “It’s an extreme disservice to the American people because they expect us to take care.”
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility received a copy of the Sept. 21 memo from the chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
According to the watchdog group, there will be 20 percent fewer law enforcement officers on the nation’s more than 550 refuges by the end of the year. Already, the number of law enforcement officers on refuges, both full-time and dual-function, had dropped by half since 2001. And PEER noted, the Interior Department does not appear to have plans, nor funding, to replace the dual-function officer with full-time officers.
‘Something needed to break’
In early Oct., a coalition of environment and community groups sued the federal government after the U.S. Department of the Interior rescinded a 2016 rule designed to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas infrastructure and proposed a new rule. The groups say the reversal violated federal law by downplaying the significance of the original rule’s benefits to public health, communities and the climate.
In the two years since its implementation, the methane waste rule has ricocheted between the Interior, the courts and Congress.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued the rule in November 2016, to limit routine flaring from oil wells, require operators to modernize their leak-detection equipment and fix leaks and, except for in certain cases, stop operators from venting methane directly into the atmosphere. Designed to allow industry to capture billions of cubic feet of natural gas otherwise wasted each year, the rule would also have controlled methane pollution, which contributes to climate change. (Methane is the same as natural gas used to heat homes and fire up ovens and water heaters.)
Industry balked and, along with four states, sued. President Donald Trump then directed U.S. Interior Secretary Zinke to review the rule. U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, also tried to overturn it under the Congressional Review Act. But Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voted with Democrats to keep it, by a vote of 51-49.
With the rule in federal court, industry kept pressuring Zinke, who suspended it and then rescinded it entirely.
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, says the original rule targeted “low-hanging fruit” by tightening up industry’s infrastructure to prevent methane pollution and bring more natural gas to market.
The natural gas industry advertises its product as a “transition” fuel in addressing climate change, a bridge of sorts between coal and renewables. But its opposition to the methane waste rule undercuts that argument, said Schlenker-Goodrich, since that “transition” fuel is being wasted and also contributing to climate change.
The Trump administration’s opposition to the methane waste rule aligns with its “energy dominant narrative,” he added. In 2017, an Interior Department memo laid out the department’s commitment to achieving “American energy dominance” by tapping into energy reserves on public lands. It’s a phrase both Zinke and Trump frequently use.
And that language is telling, said Schlenker-Goodrich: “It was ‘energy dominance,’ not ‘all of the above’ or ‘energy diversification’. That world ‘dominance’ hits me in a way that is difficult to decouple from the conversations during the Kavanaugh nomination.”
The Trump administration’s aggression is something new—something Schlenker-Goodrich said wasn’t even evident during the George W. Bush administration, which also targeted bedrock environment laws and supported energy development.
“In prior years, say with the the [George W.] Bush administration, you could at least have a reasonable conversation with decisionmakers, you could bring facts and science to the table, and they may or may not agree, they may or may not do what you request, but you could have a reasonable conversation,” he said. “There is no possibility of that in the Trump administration.”
Under Trump, there is no balance to policy-making, he said, which seems “designed to inflict cruelty as much as to demonstrate the political dominance of the Trump administration and the polluting industries that support it.”
In a way, that realization liberates organizations like his to shift from being on the defensive, or focused just on incremental changes. Instead, they are emboldened to work with communities to envision a better long-term future, especially as aridification takes hold in the U.S. Southwest.
“We need to articulate a long-term vision: how do we want to respond to climate change in a way that’s beneficial to communities in New Mexico and across the West?” he said. “Because it’s difficult to conclude, even prior to the Trump administration, that the status quo was acceptable. Something needed to break, something needed to change.”