February 21, 2022

Legislative session sees few wins for environment, energy bills

Kendra Chamberlain

While a variety of energy and environment bills were introduced during the Legislative session, few managed to make it to the governor’s desk.

The Green Amendment, which would have allowed voters to decide if the state’s Constitution’s Bill of Rights should be amended to include environmental rights, was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee and the Clean Future Act, setting a 2050 target to reach net-zero emissions across all sectors, failed to make it to the finish line as the session’s clock winded down.

Related: Clean Future Act heads to House floor

“For the New Mexico Environment Department, our budget levels increased slightly but far below the Executive Budget request,” the department spokesman Matthew Maez wrote in an emailed statement in response to an inquiry from NM Political Report. “For example, the new Climate Change Bureau received only 29 percent of the revenues requested which will slow regulatory and policy advancement on the most pressing issue of our time. Further, the legislature delayed climate action and environmental protections by failing to pass the Clean Fuel Standard, Hydrogen Hub Development Act, and the Clean Future Act. Despite these setbacks, the Environment Department is moving forward with regulatory and policy actions in these areas in the coming year.” 

Helping low-income community members with utility bills

Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter, focused on the positive when reached by phone Thursday following the end of the session. The Community Energy Efficiency Development Block Grant, which she described as a “real glimmer of success,” passed and headed to the governor’s desk for a signature. This bill will help low-income communities with access to funding for energy efficiency upgrades such as replacement appliances and weatherization. Feibelman said the bill originally would have allowed utilities to set rates for low-income customers, but that was removed. The grants will be administered by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

Along the same lines, she praised the passage of HJR 1, Public Assistance for Household Services. This will allow voters to decide whether to amend the anti-donation clause in the state’s constitution to allow the use of state funds or resources to provide essential household services. Feibelman said this will allow the state to further assist low-income residents who are paying a large percentage of their income in utility bills.

The third bill Feibelman highlighted as a win was related to uranium mines clean up, HB 164. She said that passed pretty much unanimously and a lot of lawmakers included junior money to help.

Energy 

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, had a less positive outlook. 

“Unfortunately some of the bills that were dedicated to addressing climate were so full of bad things,” she said.

She said much of the effort was spent on defeating bad bills, including various iterations of the controversial Hydrogen Hub Development Act and attempts to extend the life of the San Juan Generating Station. Nanasi highlighted a proposed amendment to the Clean Fuel Standard Act that would have allowed PNM to extend operations of the San Juan Generating Station for four months or operate temporary resources for up to a year to prevent blackouts or brownouts. She questioned if that was even constitutional, as it would have removed some of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission oversight. The bill failed to pass the House on a tie 33-33 vote early Thursday morning.

Related: House deadlocks on Clean Fuel Standard Act, which fails on tie vote

Former state Rep. Abbas Akhil, who has a background working in the energy sector including at Public Service Company of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratory, worked with legislators on HB 11, which would have provided tax credits to cover 40 percent of the costs of energy storage systems on homes, agricultural properties or businesses or $5,000. While it passed its first committee, it was not heard in its second committee.

Akhil said microgrids, which include energy storage systems on homes and businesses, are a key part of a reliable, clean energy grid. He also supported measures like hydrogen energy to decarbonize sectors like transportation and to provide reliable baseload electricity. At the same time, Akhil said the hydrogen hub bills that were introduced were too broad and should have narrowly been tailored. He said the intention should have been to attract federal investment in a hydrogen hub to New Mexico.

“We are chasing the big bucks, trying to get the whole forest but forgetting about the trees,” he said about energy legislation.

Akhil said hydrogen produced from fossil fuels is not the answer because it can have higher emissions and relies on carbon capture and sequestration, which is not a developed technology.

However, he pointed to New Mexico’s universities and the national laboratories and said research into hydrogen is ongoing. This could mean taking brackish water and using it to produce hydrogen in conjunction with renewable energy.

“The solution is out there, but it’s not here today,” he said.

Tom Solomon, co-coordinator of 350 New Mexico, said he does not see hydrogen as playing a role in New Mexico’s future. At the same time, he said a bill that did not include hydrogen produced from natural gas would have been more palatable. 

Solomon said hydrogen from fossil fuels feed stock is not the answer.

“They would increase the amount of fracked methane to make that hydrogen,” he said, adding that each iteration of the hydrogen bill had large numbers of people speak out in opposition during public comments.

He said this would lead to methane emissions from the extraction of natural gas as well as transportation.

Solomon said the Paris Climate Accord calls for a transition away from fossil fuels and that New Mexico should be moving away from extraction in light of the climate crisis.

Feibelman said most people don’t know where hydrogen comes from or where the power comes from that is used to separate the hydrogen from the carbon, in terms of hydrogen produced from natural gas. The majority of hydrogen energy today is made using methane from natural gas. 

Additionally, Feibelman said most people don’t know what hydrogen is used for. In terms of fuel cells for vehicles, Feibelman said that is a clean use, but combustion of hydrogen is not.

Nanasi said the bill not passing does not end the hydrogen discussion in New Mexico. She said she will be fighting a hydrogen proposal from a natural gas company that is before the PRC. 

Clean Future Act

Solomon also spoke about the Clean Future Act, which he said saw tremendous progress over its various iterations.

“There was a whole series of consultations with impacted communities and stakeholders and it got better and better and better,” he said. “I think it’s final version is a bill well worth passing and would make New Mexico a real climate leader.”

In terms of decarbonizing sectors like transportation, Solomon said the infrastructure needs to be built out for electric vehicle charging. He highlighted several funding initiatives to do this.

At the same time, he said SB 21, sponsored by Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, which would have provided tax credits to assist low-income people wanting to purchase electric vehicles, failed to pass the legislature. The legislation made progress during the last week of the session, receiving a do pass recommendation from the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 15, but was not heard on the Senate floor.

As for the bills that failed, Feibelman said the Sierra Club will continue to push for environmental legislation in future sessions.

She said not passing well-vetted legislation that has been introduced in multiple sessions intended to address climate change “is a huge loss for New Mexico.”

“That should be our top priority in the state,” she said.