January 15, 2021

Environmental bills coming in the 2021 legislative session

With just one week away from the 2021 session, state legislators have prefiled over 120 bills. Here’s a glimpse of some of the environment-focused bills we’ll be watching. 

The Green Amendment: State Senators Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque and Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, are proposing an amendment to the New Mexico state constitution to protect the state’s natural resources. Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces is introducing the bill in the House. 

The proposed constitutional amendment would provide residents of New Mexico with environmental rights, including a right to a clean and healthy environment and a right to the preservation of the environment. The amendment would also direct the state to protect environmental resources for the benefit of all the people.

Ferrary told NM Political Report the resolution is “part of the Green Amendment movement that’s going on around the country.” The Green Amendment refers to a movement among state governments to enact protections for the environment within state constitutions. The idea was first championed by Delaware Riverkeeper and author Maya van Rossum. van Rossum visited the state in 2019 to campaign for a green amendment to be adopted in New Mexico. 

“We would like New Mexico to have a constitutional amendment, which is better than legislation for environmental protection,” Ferrary said, adding that other states, including Pennsylvania, have already adopted green amendments to their constitutions. 

“It’s kind of like a backstop for protection for our clean air and water and public lands,” Ferrary said. “This green amendment will provide a basis to secure protective government actions, when a gap in the laws is identified. And it will strengthen the ability of communities to gain access to court when their rights have been infringed upon by government inaction, action or activity.”

If the resolution passes both the House and the Senate, New Mexico residents will be able to vote to approve the amendment in the next election, likely in 2022. Senators Harold Pope Jr., and Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque are signing on as cosponsors, as are two Santa Fe Democratic Representatives Tara Luján and Andrea Romero. 

Produced Water Act amendments: Sedillo Lopez is also introducing a bill that would amend the Produced Water Act of 2019 and address many of the issues the state is now facing in managing scarce freshwater supplies and increasing volumes of produced water. 

“The industry-drafted produced water bill that flew through the legislature two years ago is a disaster,” Sedillo Lopez said. “There’s no consequences for spillage there, there’s no requirement that [operators] trace produced water from its origin to where they ultimately dispose of it, there’s no requirement that the components in the water—including naturally occurring radiation—there’s no requirement to disclose [that].”

The bill would allow state regulators to impose fines on operators for produced water and oil and gas spills. The bill would also direct the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to adopt rules relating to produced water and other waste fluids that are “protective of public health, worker safety and natural resources.” The bill would also limit the use of freshwater in the oil field and require produced water be tracked by operators. 

Sedillo Lopez pointed to a pipe burst that drenched a family home with produced water just outside of Carlsbad in early 2020. 

“We don’t even know what was in that toxic waste,” she said. “I continue to want to shed the light on the real, indirect costs of fracking on our state and to our public health.”

RELATED: Bill would halt new fracking permits while state conducts impact studies

Water rights leasing: Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos and Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, pre-filed a bill to address water rights leasing in the state. The bill would limit the Office of the State Engineer’s ability to grant preliminary or temporary approval for water leasing ahead of an application’s approval. 

“People who own water rights have a property interest in those rights,” Chandler told NM Political Report. “It’s also a property interest of those who are impacted by other people’s water rights to protect those rights. What you do can impact what your neighbors are doing in terms of water.” 

Currently, when an entity submits an application to lease a water right, other rights holders and members of the public are able to protest the lease. But the State Engineer is also able to offer temporary approval to the application—meaning the lessee is able to begin using the water it has applied for—while the application is considered, and even if there are protests to the application. 

The problem, Chandler said, is that water rights protests can take years to be resolved. 

“Due process typically requires notice and an opportunity to object or respond—or somehow have an impact on whether or not the transfer occurs,” Chandler said. “So this use, that the State Engineer is referring to as ‘temporary,’ could also go on for years and has in fact gone on for years. So it really defeats the purpose of due process.”

Environmental Database Act: Albuquerque Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey and Santa Fe Democratic Senator Mimi Stewart are sponsoring a bill that would create a statewide database and map to house loads of data about environmental issues, such as oil and gas well locations and active mines, locations of current sources of air pollution and federal Clean Air Act nonattainment areas, surface water resources and impaired waters under the federal Clean Water Act, locations of national pollutant discharge elimination system permits and EPA Superfund sites. 

Chasey said that while the state departments do have this data available publicly, it isn’t easy to access. 

“It’s not widely available and people have to ferret it out,” she said. “It’s going to make it easier for everybody, whether they’re seeking a license or some kind of permit, to have access to it.”

The database would also contain environmental and wildlife data, including groundwater quality, floodplains and wetlands in the state, areas where important and endangered plants and wildlife have been identified and riparian corridors. 

Judy Calman, New Mexico Audubon director of policy, said the state agencies and departments already have this information, but the data is located across multiple different websites. The bill would aggregate all the information in one map, where users can toggle between layers of data. 

“We should have all this in one space,” Calman, who worked extensively on the legislation with Chasey and Stewart, said. “My hope is that it will be good for everybody. I hope that agencies will use it to make their own decisions. And I hope that it’ll help the public in understanding what’s going on in the area they’re interested in. But I even think it would help industry.”

The bill also proposes to map locations of historic and culturally significant sites on state land that are already available to the public, but the legislation contains a provision to ensure that confidential information, including the locations of indigenous cultural sites, remain protected. The mapping will not include tribal or pueblo lands.