January 27, 2021

Bills on clean fuel standard, air regulations and an environmental database clear first committees

Kendra Chamberlain

Three environmental bills passed their first committees Tuesday. The Senate Conservation Committee passed two bills, one related to a clean fuel standard and the other related to improving air quality in the state, while the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill to create an environmental database. 

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, presented SB 11, the Clean Fuel Standard Act, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said is one of her legislative priorities for the session. The bill would direct the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) Environmental Improvement Board to promulgate rules creating a clean fuel standard for transportation fuels. Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, is the House sponsor of the bill. 

“It’s a smart approach to positively impact our economy, our public health, and our environment,” Stewart said. She estimated that the bill would yield a 4.7 million ton reduction of carbon emissions from the state’s transportation sector “with no change needed in consumer behavior.”

Stewart also said the bill would generate sustainable growth for the state’s economy by supporting a new industry. 

“We’re estimating about $47 million annually in economic investments by enacting this bill and merely by announcing the bill, our agencies are hearing from new businesses that want to come to New Mexico, and others that want to expand here,” Stewart said. “These are businesses that will help diversify our economy, provide good jobs and stabilize our revenues. They’re also businesses committed to cleaner energy and less emissions.”

The bill passed the committee 6-2. The two opposing votes came from Republican Senators Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras and David Gallegos of Eunice. Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec voted in favor of the bill. The legislation heads to the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee next. 

RELATED: Renewable energy bills on tap for the 2021 session

The committee also passed SB 8, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Peter Wirth. The bill would amend the state’s Air Quality Control Act to enable the Environmental Improvement Board to set air quality standards that meet—but could be more stringent than—federal standards. Current state law prohibits NMED from adopting any air quality regulations that exceed the federal regulations. 

“We all saw from the last administration—where there were significant environmental rollbacks—the effect of the current laws New Mexico has been pegged to, and [it’s] unable to impose regulations more stringent than those federal regulations,” Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, said. 

He pointed to NMED’s on-going emissions rulemaking, which is currently limited to seven counties. 

The state law has “made it difficult for the Environment Department to propose regulations to address methane emissions,” Wirth said. 

Both the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill over concerns about regulatory uncertainty and potentially conflicting state and federal regulations, but the legislation was supported by the Sierra Club and the group 350 Santa Fe. A handful of citizens also spoke in support of the legislation. 

“I urge the committee to adopt this legislation on behalf of my daughter, who is four years old,” a resident of Shiprock said. “New Mexico simply cannot rely on the federal government to make the right decisions and should have the authority to adopt strong environmental protections now and for our communities and future generations to come.”

The bill passed the committee by a vote of 6-2. Republicans Neville and Gallegos voted against the legislation, while Schmedes voted in favor of it. The bill heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee next. 

RELATED: Environmental bills coming in the 2021 legislative session

The House Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Committee passed HB 51, a bill that would establish a statewide database for environmental data. Albuquerque Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey and Democratic Rep. Georgene Louis sponsored the Environmental Database Act. Stewart is the Senate sponsor of the bill. 

The bill would create a statewide database of environmental data that would be accessible to both the public, policy makers and industry entities. The data would include information such as threatened and endangered species data, locations of oil and gas wells, rare plant data and locations of hazardous waste sites. 

“This is a very simple bill, it would just create a single database that would centralize the state’s basic environment data,” said Judy Calman, who is the New Mexico policy director for the Audubon Society and worked extensively on the legislation. 

“We want to do this because it’s hard right now to figure out the complete picture of what’s happening in the state,” Calman said. “If you want to know everything that’s going on in a certain part of New Mexico, you go through many agency websites to try to figure that out. 

“This will help the public, but we believe it will also help the agencies to have a more comprehensive view of what’s happening. We believe it will also be useful for industry project proponents as they go through their own complicated state permitting process,” she added.

The database would be managed by UNM Natural Heritage program, which Calman said already manages the state Game and Fish Department’s own database. 

The Coalition of Sustainable Communities New Mexico and Conservation Voters New Mexico both spoke in support of the bill for promoting transparency. The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico opposed the bill due to concerns it would require additional reporting requirements for operators. The New Mexico Wool Growers Association and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association also both opposed the bill over concerns that private landowner data would be included. 

But Calman stressed that the bill would not require any new reporting requirements, nor would it publish private landowner data. She also added that the database would not include any sensitive information. 

“It just applies to agency data that they’re already collecting,” she said. “There’s also a pretty expansive confidentiality exception at the end of the bill. So that allows for the agencies at their discretion to not publish stuff if there’s a safety reason not to—or a sensitive species reason not to.”

The bill passed 7-4, with all four Republicans on the committee voting against it. It heads to the House committee on State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs next.