Audit finds ‘inappropriate’ handling of funds for lesser prairie chicken conservation

A conservation program that industry groups and landowners hoped would keep the lesser prairie chicken off the federal Endangered Species Act list has fallen short of its conservation mission and wasted millions in the process, according to an independent audit of the program.

The lesser prairie chicken has been under consideration for Endangered Species Act protections for more than 20 years and was listed as a threatened species, a step down from endangered species designation, from 2014 to 2016. 

A group of five states that share the lesser prairie chicken range — New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma — developed in 2013 a voluntary conservation program with land owners, ranchers and oil and gas companies through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a consortium of state fish and game agencies across the West. WAFWA has managed the program for landowners and oil and gas developers to buy into in order to assure protections for remaining lesser prairie chicken habitat. 

BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to move forward with a public engagement process for plans to expand drilling in the Greater Chaco region, even as the communities in northwestern New Mexico, who are currently struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, have repeatedly requested an extension to the process.  

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the BLM released a draft amendment to the Farmington field office resource management plan (RMP) and environmental impact statement in late February, kicking off a public comment period that ends on May 28. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region.  

As the COVID-19 outbreak has spread across the state, local community groups in the Greater Chaco region requested the BLM extend the public comment period during the public health emergency. That call was echoed by the state government, the congressional delegation, and tribal leaders. All told, three separate letters were sent to the Department of Interior requesting the comment be extended. As of Friday, none have received a response, according to officials. 

RELATED: Guv orders Gallup lockdown to slow COVID-19 spread

Meanwhile, populations in the northwest corner of the state, including communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, have been pummeled by COVID-19.

Deadliest day yet: State announces 11 deaths and 198 new COVID-19 cases

State health officials gave a grim update on the spread of COVID-19 in the state Thursday, with 11 new deaths and 198 new cases of the disease. Thursday marks the most deaths related to COVID-19 announced in one day. The state’s total for COVID-19 cases now stands at 3,411. “We’re seeing more and more of our vulnerable populations being preyed upon by this invisible enemy and losing their battles and their lives,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a press conference on Facebook. The state has now lost 123 individuals to COVID-19. 

The northwest part of the state continues to be the hardest-hit area.

‘The genie is out of the bottle’: Rural healthcare providers see silver lining to pandemic

“It’s a sea change.”

That’s how Sylvia Villarreal, CEO and owner of Taos Clinic for Youth, described telemedicine and its place in rural healthcare. Villarreal has offered limited telehealth services, also referred to as telemedicine, to patients for about eight years. 

Telehealth refers to healthcare services that are administered remotely between patient and doctor, typically over video using a broadband connection. In theory, telehealth could significantly expand access to healthcare in rural communities. But implementing telehealth across the U.S. has proved challenging for a number of reasons — insurance coverage and reimbursement being one of the larger roadblocks to adoption for providers. After a recent push at the federal level to expand telehealth service reimbursements for Medicaid and Medicare patients in response to COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges to adoption has suddenly been removed.

State announces six deaths and 66 new COVID-19 cases in ‘partial’ update

State officials announced 66 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, as well as six deaths. Due to a “technical lapse” the state released a “partial” update Sunday afternoon on the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a type of coronavirus. The delayed results will be included in the state’s update for Monday, April 27, or as soon as they are received and lab-confirmed. Update (4/27/20): DOH: Total number of NM COVID-19 deaths crosses 100

The number of deaths of New Mexico residents related to COVID-19 is now 99. The six new deaths are:

A male in his 50s from McKinley County.

ABQ begins preparing for easing restrictions: ‘Be prepared for a new normal’

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller outlined how the city is handling preparations for reopening businesses in the future in a press conference on Thursday. 

“I’m proud of Bernalillo County and of Albuquerque that we actually have been doing a very good job of flattening the curve, staying home and following orders,” he said. 

Keller’s press conference came a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would extend the public health order until May 15, but that the state was now in the “preparation” phase of looking into easing restrictions and reopening businesses. Keller pointed to a graph charting new cases in Bernalillo County that shows the curve has flattened some, though Keller warned it was still increasing. 

“It’s going to be a different kind of summer this year,” Keller said. “As badly as we want to pick a date to open up, it’s clear the virus picks the date, not us.”

Keller said he wants to see a downward trend in new cases in the county before the city begins reopening businesses. 

“We don’t even have that yet,” he said. “We do hope it’s weeks, not months. But we’re just going to have to continue to use data to inform those decisions.”  

Keller also warned that opening up the city before it’s safe to do so will likely lead to longer and harsher economic repercussions if the city is forced to shut down again, and may endanger more lives if there is a second large spike in cases. 

“The price of opening up too soon is lives lost.

Report: Climate change, oil & gas emissions a bad mix for New Mexico air quality

Climate change and a sharp increase in oil and gas production in the state are contributing to worsening air quality in New Mexico, according to a new report. 

The American Lung Association’s (ALA) annual “State of the Air 2020” report, which looks at ozone and particle pollution levels across a three-year period between 2016 and 2018, found air quality across the country has worsened since last year’s report, and New Mexico is no exception. 

Climate change has been a chief driver of worsening air quality, said JoAnna Strother, senior advocacy director for ALA, because it increases the amount of particulate matter in the air. 

“Climate change is really leading to stuff that we saw in this year’s report. The past five years are the warmest years on record, globally,” Strother said. “As temperatures warm up, we see more droughts, more dust storms, more wildfires — all of those contribute to the unhealthy air quality that we see picked up on air quality monitors.”

Wildfires are another major contributor to particle pollution, she said, particularly in the western United States. 

“Those wildfires might be happening in California and we would certainly see effects in other states like New Mexico,” she said. 

Strother also pointed to drought, a common and growing environmental challenge in New Mexico. 

“When there’s no rain to saturate, the dust becomes very fine particles, and when that’s picked up into the air, it [becomes] particle pollution. We’re specifically looking at PM2.5, so it’s extremely fine particles that lodge very deep down into the lungs, and is responsible for a lot of the health impacts,” she said. 

Particulate matter monitors in NM

Much of the particulate matter data for New Mexico is missing from the ALA report, which uses data compiled from state air quality monitors. 

Source: American Lung Association

That’s because the state’s ambient air quality monitors aren’t placed in each county, according to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). New Mexico maintains 20 ambient air quality monitors throughout the state, and the locations of those monitors are based on population density, NMED spokesperson Maddy Hayden told NM Political Report. 

Hayden said NMED’s air quality monitors and their locations must be federally-approved, and the state would not receive approval to place more air quality monitors in areas that do not meet population requirements. 

RELATED: For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat

“What pollutants are monitored in the network and where those monitors are located is determined and governed by federal requirements for siting and the federal Environmental Protection Agency,” she said. 

Particulate matter in Eddy and Lea counties, for example, is monitored by just one PM2.5 “sampler” located in Hobbs.

Heinrich defends stream access as issue heads to NM Supreme Court

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich weighed in on an ongoing and complicated dispute between the state Game Commission and environmental groups about accessing streams in New Mexico. Heinrich told NM Political Report that New Mexico’s leadership needs to step up efforts to protect stream access rights. 

At issue is a rule adopted by the Game Commission in 2017 that enables landowners to apply through the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to certify portions of waterways that run through private property as “non-navigable.” By obtaining the non-navigable designation, those landowners are able to block off portions of waterways from public access. The rule was generally supported by landowners, and NMDGF approved several applications before it imposed a moratorium in July 2019 on issuing the certificates over legal questions. 

Critics of the rule argue that restricting public access to waterways — including those that flow through private property — is unconstitutional. The New Mexico Constitution states that waterways belong to the public, and critics argue trespassing was never allowed under state law to access a public waterway. Water recreationalists have also argued that the rule has impeded recreation on some of the state’s most popular waterways, including the Chama, Pecos, Alamosa, Mimbres and Peñasco rivers. 

Controversy around the issue swelled in early 2020, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declined to reappoint commission chair Joanna Prukop, whom she had appointed to the position in June 2019, after Prukop led a majority vote at the commission to ask the NMDGF to review and possibly amend the rule.

NM partners with AI firm for contact-tracing software

New Mexico is one of 17 states using technology from an artificial intelligence software firm to help manage contact-tracing and resource distribution related to COVID-19 cases. 

The Frisco, Texas-based company MTX Group builds communication and management platforms for emergency response. The platforms pair messaging applications for mobile devices with artificial intelligence engines to help governments and agencies better respond to disasters. 

The company rolled out its disease monitoring and control application in early March with the state of New York, MTX Group founder and CEO Das Nobel told NM Political Report. That initial release used a messaging and monitoring system to help New York state’s Department of Health keep track of travelers entering the country through the John F. Kennedy International Airport, located in Queens. 

“Initially, New York was getting all of the passengers coming in from different countries, especially China, diverted to the JFK airport. The CDC controlled the screening process [working with] the Department of Health,” Nobel said. The company rolled out its message and monitoring application in response.

Oil and gas, environmentalists in rare agreement over State Land Office’s emergency rule on shut down wells

Representatives from both oil and gas producers and environmental groups found themselves agreeing on the State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard’s emergency rulemaking for oil and gas production on state land during an online tele-hearing. 

The State Land Office announced earlier in April that it would begin an emergency rulemaking process to allow oil lessees to temporarily stop oil production without penalty for at least thirty days, in hopes of restarting production when the price of oil has recovered some. During the online tele-hearing, oil and gas representatives praised Garcia Richard and the State Land Office for its decision. 

John Smitherman, senior regulatory advisor at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), described the rule as “valuable and practical relief.” Smitherman said the current oil price crisis, spurred by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and exacerbated by a steep drop in demand for oil and gas products amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to the “worst business environment” he’s ever seen. 

“I’ve personally been in this business for over forty years, and have never seen the challenges we face today. This industry, just like many others, is making sacrifices right now for the good of the community, while incurring significant financial losses as a result of unprecedented reductions in demand for our products,” Smitherman said. “The interests of the oil and gas industry and the State Land Office are aligned when it comes to this.”

RELATED: Groups worry about oil and gas emissions as state regulators scale back some enforcement operations during outbreak

Environmental group representatives agreed that the emergency rule was a good idea. 

“It’s not often that environmental groups get to say that we agree with industry in commending the Land Commissioner in moving forward with this rule,” said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at WildEarth Guardians. 

But that’s where consensus between the two groups stopped. 

Smitherman, who said NMOGA’s members operate approximately 95 percent of oil and gas production in the state, and account for greater than 90 percent of all state land office revenue, said he anticipates the situation “will right itself” and “business will return to normal,” though the recovery could be slow. 

Sobel disagreed in her comments. 

“It’s shameful that industry officials are here advocating for yet another bailout to frack forever, in the midst of a public health crisis. We know the oil and gas industry is collapsing as we speak.