March 13, 2021

Environment protections bill passes New Mexico Senate

A bill that would allow the state of New Mexico to adopt air quality and hazardous waste rules more stringent than federal regulations survived a challenge Friday from Senate Republicans, who had previously stalled the measure with a procedural maneuver that kept it in limbo for days.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, the bill would amend the Air Quality Control Act and the Hazardous Waste Act to allow rules more rigid than federal standards.

“In each case … there must be substantial evidence that the proposed state rules are more protective of public health and the environment,” said Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat.

The bill passed along a mostly party-line 23-15 vote. Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup sided with Republicans in opposing the measure, which goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration. 

Wirth argued that Senate Bill 8 would provide what he called consistent, New Mexico-focused environmental oversight.

“This is particularly important where federal regulations are either nonexistent or change as [a] federal administration changes or when the federal law does not consider New Mexico’s unique circumstances,” he said.

Republicans labeled the measure a “radical anti-energy bill” that would allow the state Environment Department to implement excessive regulations, and they pushed unsuccessfully for an amendment that would include an opt-out provision for counties.

“This is what’s referred to in the populace as red tape, and this bill represents one more approach to that,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said.

Wirth later countered that his bill was about state’s rights.

“This is a question of not us ceding our rights but us exerting our rights,” he said.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said she was worried the state would enact rules and regulations more stringent than federal standards related to oil and gas, which brings in about 32 percent of the state’s revenue. She was especially concerned about independent producers with older wells.

“Frankly, it’s very possible that many of the independent producers will not be able to comply with some of the rules and regulations that will be implemented in this law,” she said. “I’m just concerned that we’re focusing in — again — on an industry that does so much for this state. And the future is certainly questionable with regard to that because I just think at some point, they’re just not going to be able to survive, and we’re going to have many of these companies move into Texas or simply shut down.”

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, raised concerns about the adoption of state standards “that simply were not achievable.”

“This is a big deal,” he said. “This bill, as it stands today, even with the substantial evidence requirements, I think can be manipulated to shut down anything that the government wants to shut down and not just this governor, any governor in the future. Any governor, they can look at it and say, ‘You know what? I don’t like widget manufacturing in the state of New Mexico. We’re going to set a standard now, because we found substantial evidence, and we’re going to destroy that industry.’ “

The bill had been in limbo since Monday, when another Republican, Sen. David Gallegos of Eunice, requested a “call of the Senate,” a legislative procedure that requires every member of the chamber to be physically present in the Roundhouse for consideration of legislation. At Gallegos’ request, the call was removed ahead of the nearly two-hour debate.