1,494 new COVID-19 cases, 68 deaths over the weekend

State health officials reported 1,494 new cases of COVID-19 and 68 related deaths over the weekend. The state Department of Health identified 859 new cases of the disease and 38 deaths Saturday and 635 new cases and 30 deaths on Sunday. 

Bernalillo County had the most new cases reported over the weekend with 330 cases between Saturday and Sunday. Bernalillo County, which is the state’s most populous county, was also the only county to report more than 100 cases on both Saturday and Sunday. 

The state has identified a total of 169,205 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and 3,145 deaths related to the disease. DOH has designated 93,141 COVID-19 cases recovered. 

There were 627 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state as of Saturday. This could include those from other states who are hospitalized in New Mexico, but would not include New Mexicans who are hospitalized out of state.

PNM wants customers to pay $300m to exit a coal plant

In November 2020, PNM announced it would leave the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant by the end of 2024, seven years earlier than planned. The accelerated exit will bring an end to PNM’s coal assets in New Mexico two decades ahead of the clean energy mandate set forth in the state’s Energy Transition Act of 2019. 

Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM Resources’ chairman, president and CEO, said at the time the move was “a major step in our vision to create a clean and bright energy future and achieve our industry-leading goal of emissions-free energy by 2040.”

PNM currently owns 13 percent of the plant’s two operating units, representing 200 megawatts (MW) worth of energy generation. PNM is also engaged in a coal supply contract with the Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC). PNM had initially planned to exit the facility in 2031, when its coal supply contract ends. Instead, PNM and NTEC have reached an agreement through which PNM will pay $75 million to NTEC to end its coal contract by December 31, 2024 and then transfer its ownership of the plant to NTEC for $1. 

PNM filed its abandonment and securitization application for the plant with the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) earlier this month.

Biden’s first day: Trump’s methane rule and U.S. rejoins Paris Agreement

President Joe Biden wasted no time in starting to tackle some of the country’s most pressing climate change issues after being inaugurated on Jan. 20. One of Biden’s first acts as president was to rejoin the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, a 2015 non-binding pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions necessary to keep the planet’s warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. 

Nearly every country in the world has made the pledge to act on climate change, but Former President Donald Trump announced plans to remove the U.S. from the accord in 2017. The country was not officially able to exit the agreement until Nov. 4, 2020, one day after the presidential election.

NMED beings PFAS cleanup without military help

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) selected a contractor to begin clean up efforts for PFAS contamination identified at two Air Force bases in the state. The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) use of a firefighting foam that contained PFAS compounds during training exercises caused the contamination. The foam was not properly disposed of for decades at the Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases, leading to groundwater contamination at both sites. 

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that can move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. 

The contamination at Holloman and Cannon Air Force bases was first disclosed to NMED by the DOD in 2018. But the DOD has refused to clean up the contamination, which is currently threatening at least one commercial dairy farmer and a handful of private well owners. 

RELATED: Concerned leaders hopeful Biden administration will address PFAS contamination

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and NMED filed a complaint in federal district court in March 2019, asking a judge to compel the Air Force to act on cleanup. The state also filed a preliminary injunction in federal court to get the Air Force to regularly test groundwater and surface waters, provide alternate water sources for those affected and provide voluntary blood tests for those who may have been exposed to the toxic chemicals. 

Meanwhile, the state Legislature allocated roughly $1 million to NMED to begin the clean up while the state’s litigation against the DOD plays out in court. 

NMED awarded a $1 million contract to environmental consultant Daniel B Stephens & Associates earlier this month to begin addressing the contamination.

Renewable energy bills on tap for the 2021 session

The Legislature will be considering a handful of renewable energy-related legislation in the upcoming session. Here are some of the bills we’ll be watching. 

Clean fuel standard: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that a clean fuel standard is one of her legislative priorities for the upcoming 60-day session. The fuel standard would only apply to the producers of fuel, not retailers such as gas stations. The fuel standard would reduce the state’s transportation emissions by 230,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, the governor said in a press release. 

Local Choice Energy Act: Las Cruces Democratic state Senator Jeff Steinborn prefiled a bill that would enable communities to source their own electricity providers. Steinborn, who introduced similar legislation in 2019, said the bill would inject more competition into electricity markets. 

“The reason for it is, it’s just good old-fashioned free market,” Steinborn said.

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.

Guv quietly looks to expand export markets for natural gas

In July 2020, Gov.  Michelle Lujan Grisham signed onto a letter of support for a natural gas export facility being proposed in Baja California, Mexico. The letter, which was addressed to Mexico’s Energy Secretary Nahle Garcia, touted the facility as a potential “major North American west coast energy export hub” of natural gas to Asian Markets. 

“Energy demand is soaring in Asia, led by China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India due to manufacturing and economic growth,” the letter reads. “All of these countries are using natural gas as a way to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.”

The letter was signed by two other governors and the chairman of the Ute tribe in Colorado, on behalf of the Western States and Tribal Nations Natural Gas Initiative (WSTN). New Mexico joined the group in late 2019, with little media attention, when the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with WSTN. A few months after sending the letter, the facility was approved by Mexico’s regulators and Baja California joined WTSN.

WPX settles with family over produced water spill

Penny Aucoin and her husband Carl George reached a settlement with the oil company WPX Energy over a pipe burst in early 2020 that drenched the family’s yard, pets and livestock with produced water. 

In January 2020, Aucoin and George were awoken early one morning by the sound of a loud pop and gushing water. When the pair went outside to investigate, they discovered that a pipeline across the street that transports produced water from an oil pad to a saltwater disposal well had burst, spewing the toxic fluid into the sky and across the street where the family’s home is located. 

RELATED: ‘It was raining on us’: Family awoken by produced water pipe burst near Carlsbad

Aucoin, who lives just outside of Carlsband, previously told NM Political Report the wastewater poured from the pipe for an hour before the operator was able to shut it off. The fluid drenched her pets and livestock and saturated the soil of the yard. In the aftermath, Aucoin said she was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. She said a county official told her she couldn’t eat her chicken eggs, couldn’t eat their meat, and said she probably shouldn’t eat anything grown on her property, either.

Bill would halt new fracking permits while state conducts impact studies

State Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, plans to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would enact a four-year pause on fracking permits while studies are conducted to determine the impacts of fracking on agriculture, environment and water resources and public health. 

The bill directs state agencies and departments, including the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the New Mexico Environment Department, the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture to study and report annually to the governor and the relevant legislative committees on the impacts of fracking on the respective sectors. 

“It’s not a moratorium on fracking or banning fracking altogether. It is simply a pause on issuing new permits for four years,” Sedillo Lopez told NM Political Report. 

“The bill requires agencies to study the issue of fracking, and to give recommendations to the legislature for legislation and rules that would be appropriate to deal with the consequences of fracking on our air, our land, our water, and our health,” she said. 

The 2021 session will be the third time state legislators will consider the bill, which failed to get on the call during the last 30-day session in January 2020. In even-numbered years, only budget bills and bills on topics chosen by the governor can be discussed by the Legislature. The 2021 version of the bill hasn’t been prefiled. 

RELATED: State environmental regulators face thinner budgets amid pandemic and oil slump

In past legislative sessions, the bill has received pushback from Republicans and legislators representing districts in the state’s two energy-producing zones. A fiscal impact report on the bill from 2019 estimated the state would lose $3.5 billion by halting new fracking permits for four years, but an updated analysis is needed to better predict the possible fiscal implications moving forward. 

Sedillo Lopez said that the bill has support among many environmental groups and concerned residents, but added that she was surprised at the opposition it has received among other groups. 

“The reaction was actually stunning.

2020 Top Stories #2: State budget impacts of pandemic, oil bust

State legislators finished the 2020 legislative session with a $7.6 billion budget in February that expanded spending 7.5 percent across the state’s departments, with more than 45 percent of all new recurring expenditures going toward what Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the “education continuum,” from early childhood programs to higher education. 

Then the pandemic hit in March, which brought the state’s economy to a grinding halt. And in April, a price war between Russia and Saudia Arabia drove the price of oil into negative territory for the first time ever. 

In May, a group of state economists from the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG) warned that recurring revenues for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) could decline between $370 million to $480 million below forecasts from the previous year. That meant the state wouldn’t have enough money to cover FY20’s spending, the economists said.