Forest Service seeks to protect caves in Eddy County from mineral extraction

Mining and extractive industries were banned on more than 27,000 acres of land around a fragile cave system in Eddy County for two decades, but that protection expired last year. Now the U.S. Forest Service is asking the U.S. Department of the Interior to once again remove the national forest lands in the Guadalupe Caves Resource Protection Area from federal leasing for another 20 years. The cave system is in an area known as the Guadalupe Escarpment, located between Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is in Texas. 

Following the application filed in December by the Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management filed a notice Monday in the Federal Register officially kicking off the public comment period. Comments will be accepted through April 25. The BLM and Forest Service will host a virtual public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Feb.

State agencies, national labs team up in zero-carbon hydrogen effort

Hydrogen will be a key energy source in meeting the state’s goals of net zero by 2050 and at least 45 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, according to New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney. Kenney spoke to NM Political Report after his agency, as well as the Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Economic Development Department, signed a memorandum of understanding with Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories with the stated purpose to “facilitate the development of sound science, advance technologies and inform national/state policies that could enable a path to zero carbon hydrogen.”

The national labs are no strangers to hydrogen. John Sarrao, deputy director for science, technology, and engineering at Los Alamos, said the lab has been working on hydrogen for about 40 years and has developed technology that is currently being deployed in pilot projects. Chris LaFleur, an engineer at Sandia, said the lab’s work looking at hydrogen as a clean energy alternative dates back more than 15 years and one of the areas that the lab has been focusing on is storage materials. She said the lab’s hydrogen expertise is part of its core mission. 

LaFleur said, in terms of research into storage, Sandia has been looking at storing hydrogen molecules “within the latticework of other materials.” She called this solid storage, as compared to what is currently more common—storing pressurized hydrogen in a tank. While the MOU addresses storage, LaFleur said the MOU’s focus is primarily on large-scale storage.

Green amendment once again goes before legislature

Several Democratic state legislators are looking to amend the New Mexico Constitution to guarantee future generations the right to a clean environment. 

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, are the lead sponsors on a joint resolution that nearly two dozen of their colleagues have already voiced support for. The legislative session starts Tuesday and the joint resolution is among the pieces of legislation filed prior to the start. This is the second year that they have sponsored a joint resolution seeking to amend the state’s bill of rights to include environmental rights. This is colloquially dubbed the “Green Amendment.”

Because it is a constitutional amendment, voters would have to approve it if it passes the Legislature. 

If approved by voters, the bill of rights section of the state’s constitution would be amended to include the rights of future generations to clean water and air and a stable climate and healthy environments. It would also recognize the environment’s cultural, natural and human health values.

NMED pushes for funding for climate bureau

Sandra Ely, director of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Environmental Protection Division, says this is a “decisive decade” in terms of climate change. Ely is one of the “key architects” of a proposed climate bureau within NMED, according to Secretary James Kenney. Ely and Kenney spoke to NM Political Report this week about the climate bureau. 

The amount of what Kenney describes as “seed money” that the environment department could launch this bureau depends on the state Legislature. 

The governor and the Legislative Finance Committee have released proposed budgets that include vastly different numbers. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked for $2.5 million for the climate bureau, which would fund 15 full time positions. In contrast, the LFC has proposed between $200,000 and $400,000, which would support three to seven full time positions depending on what happens with the Hydrogen Hub Act and clean fuel standards.

State senator seeks funding for Dryland Resiliency Center

New Mexico is in an ideal location for research into dryland resiliency, including best irrigation methods and drought-tolerant crop varieties, according to state Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, who has sponsored legislation to fund a dryland resiliency center. The legislative session starts Tuesday and the funding for the dryland resiliency center is among the legislation pre-filed before the first day. This research center would be based out of New Mexico State University but would also work collaboratively with other higher education institutions in the state including Eastern New Mexico University, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and the University of New Mexico. “This isn’t just to bring it into Las Cruces, where I live,” he said, explaining that the lead researchers are at NMSU and that is why it would be housed there. Soules has asked for approximately $15 million to fund this program.

Supply chain challenges impact New Mexico utilities

Utilities across New Mexico are struggling to acquire equipment in a timely manner and major projects have been delayed amid problems with a sluggish global supply chain. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is concerned that this could impact the utilities’ ability to maintain and repair utility infrastructure and provide services to customers. Commissioners discussed their concerns during Wednesday’s meeting. 

The state regulatory agency opened a docket to investigate the impacts of the supply chain challenges on utilities in October after learning from Public Service Company of New Mexico during the summer that the inability to get equipment was delaying a solar and battery storage project intended to replace the electricity the utility currently receives from the San Juan Generating Station. Since the docket opened, natural gas and electric utilities throughout the state have provided the PRC with information about how the slowdowns are impacting their operations and what they are doing to address those challenges. 

PNM provides regular updates to the PRC about its progress to find other sources of energy to fill the gap between the time when the San Juan Generating Station goes offline and when the solar project is operational. Its next report is due at the end of this month and the PRC issued specific requests for the utility to include in that report to help gauge what resources are available and what the plans are if there is a shortage of power this summer.

State Supreme Court rejects constitutional challenge to Energy Transition Act

The New Mexico Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the landmark Energy Transition Act, the state law that provided utilities with the ability to refinance past investments into coal-fired power plants using low-interest bonds to facilitate closing the generating facilities. The case came to the state Supreme Court in April 2020 after the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission approved an application from the Public Service Company of New Mexico to abandon the San Juan Generating Station, which meant ceasing operations of the facility, and refinance the past investments. Two advocacy groups focused on consumer rights—New Energy Economy and Citizens for Fair Rates and the Environment—filed an appeal challenging the constitutionality of a portion of the Energy Transition Act. Both groups support the increased renewable portfolio standards that the law put into place. Non-bypassable charges on customers’ bills to pay off the bonds were at the center of the legal challenge.

BLM hosts roundtable discussion about federal funding for orphaned wells

Randy Pacheco, the chief executive officer of the San Juan Basin-based A-Plus Well Service, said the state’s workforce needs to be built up to address the orphaned oil and natural gas wells that dot the landscape in many states including New Mexico. 

Pacheco was one of the panelists who participated in a roundtable-style webinar discussion about the federal orphaned well program and the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to implement it. The bureau hosted the webinar, which drew hundreds of people, on Thursday. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed into law in November provided $4.7 billion for clean-up, remediation and restoration at orphaned well sites. That led to the U.S. Department of the Interior releasing initial guidelines on Dec. 17 for states to apply for funding.

Group of legislators request study about creating government-run electric utilities

A group of 16 state legislators have asked the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to study what it would take for governments to acquire electric utilities, but PRC officials say that may not be within the regulatory agency’s authority. The PRC issued an order on Jan. 5 asking the legislators leading the effort, state Sen. Liz Stefanics and state Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, to either attend next week’s meeting or to send someone to present to the commission on their behalf about the proposed study. This granted a request the Legislators made in the petition filed on Dec. 21.

Utilities appeal PRC decisions to the state Supreme Court

As utilities race to meet renewable energy targets set forth in the Energy Transition Act, two of the state’s investor-owned utilities have asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to review decisions the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has made in cases that they say will impact their transition. The Public Service Company of New Mexico appealed the final orders in both the Four Corners Power Plant ownership transfer and the Avangrid merger. Southwestern Public Service Company appealed the final order in its renewable portfolio standard case in which the PRC rejected its request for a financial incentive to retire renewable energy certificates early so that it could reach renewable energy targets early. PNM filed the appeal on the Four Corners Power Plant transfer on Dec. 22.