Bill to protect traditional land uses for land grant and acequia communities advances in the House

A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and co-sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland that would help land grant and acequia communities retain access to public lands for traditional uses  advanced in Congress. 

The Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act would require more consultation between the federal government and land grant and acequia groups in New Mexico in public lands management. 

“The legislation will make it easier for land grant mercedes to work with federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service,” Luján said during a virtual legislative hearing in June, by requiring federal agencies “to make land grant mercedes aware of changes to management plans and encouraging agencies to mitigate any adverse impacts due to federal action.”

The bill would also create “a process to allow New Mexico’s land grants to establish their historic boundaries and provides them with pathways for acquiring that land when the federal government disposes of it,” Luján said, and that it would “ensure that the federal government appropriately recognizes spiritual and cultural sites while providing greater tools for land grants to acquire the lands that these sites reside on.”

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Spanish crown, and later the Mexican government, offered land grants to communities and individuals in New Mexico and across the southwest to promote settlement of the area. The land grants included tracts of communal land that were used for livestock grazing, firewood access and water delivery infrastructure such as acequias. 

After the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred more than half of the territory in Mexico to the United States, the U.S. federal government was tasked with establishing a process for adjudicating the land grant titles. 

Instead, the government sold off millions of acres of communal land, which Arturo Archuleta, program manager at the New Mexico Land Grant Council, said jeopardized those communities’ survival and their agrarian way of life. 

“Our communities included common lands that provided the natural resources needed for our survival. These common lands were never intended to be privatized nor alienated from the communities’ common ownership and use,” Archuleta said during the virtual hearing. 

The adjudication process was “faulty, inefficient, inequitable and in some cases fraudulent and corrupt — oftentimes, with U.S. federal government officials directly involved in the corruption,” Archuleta said. 

“The end result of this unjust process was that millions of acres of common lands were stripped of the ownership of our local communities. Much of these former common lands are now managed by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. 

Archuleta said the bill, the product of 10 years of work between land grant and acequia communities and the state’s congressional delegation, offers “important first steps in rectifying the historical injustices that have crippled our communities for over a century.”

“Over the years, our communities have been placed at odds with federal land management agencies, not by our own choice, but as a direct result of having our traditional use needs ignored — partly because we are not always at the table when land management decisions are being made,” Archuleta said. “The passage of [bill] H.R. 3682 would help ensure federal land management policies and practices regardless of changes in the administration, will honor, respect, protect and conserve our traditional uses now and for future generations.” 

The bill moved out of the House Committee on Natural Resources on July 30 and now heads to the House floor.

Draft methane rules focus on data collection, technological solutions

The New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department released their respective draft rules targeting methane emissions and ozone precursor pollutants Monday. EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst called the draft rules “pre-proposals” ahead of the official rulemaking process that’s slated to take place in the fall. 

“We felt it was very important for the public and the regulated community and anyone to be able to take a look at draft regulatory language side by side from our departments and give us feedback,” Cottrell Propst said during a press conference Tuesday morning. 

The draft rules are the culmination of nearly a year of work by the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, which was composed of oil and gas representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders. Cottrell Propst said the process had been “incredibly collaborative” with stakeholders and said the two departments looked at other states’ methane rules in developing their own. 

EMNRD’s 2-phase rule

EMNRD’s proposed draft rule, which Cottrell Propst described as an umbrella regulation, would roll out in two phases. The first phase would involve data collection and “robust” reporting from oil and gas operators in the state’s two oil-producing basins. 

“We know that having accurate data is really important for establishing meaningful baselines and enforceable goals to reduce natural gas waste,” Cottrell Propst said. “Historically, the industry has not reported consistent and complete data for venting and flaring to us.

New Mexico joins multidistrict litigation against firefighting foam manufacturers for PFAS contamination

The state of New Mexico has joined a multidistrict litigation against the manufacturers of the aqueous film-forming foams that were used in firefighting activities across the country and in Air Force Bases in New Mexico which led to groundwater contamination. 

A U.S. judicial panel earlier this year flagged the state’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense over the contamination for inclusion in the multidistrict tort proceeding, which encompasses roughly 500 pending cases related to PFAS contamination. The litigation will be heard in a U.S. District Court in South Carolina. “That’s a recent development,” said Chris Atencio, Assistant General Counsel at the New Mexico Environment Department. “We’ve gone through that process and our case is now included in that. We’re working with our council, the Attorney General’s office and folks internally to try to evaluate the requirements of that process and how best to proceed.

With record methane emissions in Permian Basin, questions linger about necessity of the Double E pipeline

Federal regulators are in the midst of an application process for a proposed 135-mile pipeline that would transport natural gas from Eddy County to Waha, Texas. But with oil and gas prices low, renewables on the rise, and a growing methane emissions problem in the Permian Basin, critics argue building a new pipeline in today’s environment is a step in the wrong direction. 

Summit Midstream, the project developer, proposed the pipeline in 2018, when oil production in the Permian Basin was booming. Exxon Mobil acquired about 30 percent ownership of the project, while XTO Energy, which is owned by Exxon Mobil, signed on as an anchor tenant to use the majority of the pipeline’s capacity. In March, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave the project its first big greenlight when it released a draft environmental assessment that found it would have little impact on the surrounding environment and communities. 

The proposed route of the Double E pipeline. Source: Double E Pipeline

While proponents of the pipeline say it will help alleviate some of the excessive venting and flaring of natural gas that comes up with the oil in the Permian Basin, critics argue FERC failed to consider the cumulative climate impacts of the project, particularly the impact of increased methane emissions both in the Permian Basin, where the natural gas is produced, and in the “downstream” market when that natural gas is combusted. 

XTO Energy flares about 5 percent of its production, and is responsible for roughly 10 percent of statewide flaring, according to research conducted by Tom Singer, senior policy advisor at the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC).

With oil’s future uncertain, orphaned wells on public lands could become a big problem for New Mexico

To Nathalie Eddy’s eye, Loco Hills has become “a graveyard” of oil and gas development. 

Eddy is the Colorado and New Mexico field advocate at the environmental group Earthworks. Eddy works frequently in the Permian Basin, using special imaging cameras to capture methane leaks coming from oil and gas wells sites in the area. 

Loco Hills, located north of Carlsbad on the Lovington Highway, is a legacy oilfield whose landscape is now dotted with inactive wells, and a few wells still producing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of those defunct wells are located on state or federal public lands and they aren’t going away anytime soon. The area “offers a sobering glimpse of drilling’s irreversible damage that scars these public lands and makes the land unavailable for any future use for future generations,” Eddy told NM Political Report. 

There is concern that other parts of the Permian Basin may suffer a similar fate. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Carlsbad field office was considered the busiest in the country last year, thanks to record levels of oil and gas production in the Permian Basin.

Ranchers, researchers mull using treated produced water for irrigation

John Norris is worried about where he’s going to get water in the future. Norris is a rancher in southeast New Mexico, where he runs calf-cow and yearling operations. 

“Our water comes from the Ogallala [aquifer]. We’re basically mining this water, whenever it’s gone our water source is going to be gone,” Norris said, adding that in drought years his fields dry up and the grass doesn’t grow. 

“Water is the lifeblood of what we do. It’s very important to me to look for a new water source for the future to be sustainable,” he said. “Sometimes we need just a little bit of water to make it through.”

Related: Amid groundwater declines, water data gains importance

There’s a chance Norris could someday use recycled produced water to help irrigate his ranchland. 

Produced water is an abundant wastewater byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, including fracking.

Alleged produced water dumping highlights difficulties in holding oil and gas accountable

A recent incident involving the alleged dumping of produced water on state lands has highlighted the difficulties state regulators face in holding oil producers accountable to illegal dumping. 

“If we don’t have proof of it happening, it’s very hard to move forward with a violation,” Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division, told NM Political Report. 

A rancher alerted the OCD in early March of an incident in which the rancher believed produced water was being dumped on state trust lands and a road in Lea County. 

“Luckily it was caught by someone locally,” Sandoval said, adding that the individual “took recordings of it while it was occurring.” 

A month later, the OCD issued administrative civil penalties to two companies involved in the incident: the oil producer Advanced Energy Partners Hat Mesa, LLC and a New Mexico-based trucking company named Windmill Trucking. AEP Hat Mesa has a contract with Windmill Trucking for hauling fresh water and produced water to and from oil rigs. 

“The trucking company is required to have authorization from us and permits in order to haul this water. It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure the people they are contracting with have the appropriate credentials. That’s why they’re both receiving violations,” Sandoval said. 

The OCD fined AEP $7,600 and fined Windmill Trucking $8,700 — the first fines OCD has issued since it regained its ability to collect fines earlier this year.  

RELATED: Oil Conservation Division can enforce oil regulations for first time in a decade

“Those are just initial numbers,” Sandoval said. “After we issue the initial notice of violation, they have the option of either having a settlement conference or going to a hearing.

After a long battle, the Gila River Diversion project comes to an end

After 25 years, $16 million dollars, and missing a key deadline, the Gila River Diversion proposal is now effectively dead. The Interstate Stream Commission voted 7-2 Thursday against supplying funding needed to complete an environmental impact statement required for the project. Critics of the project, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and conservation and environmental groups, cheered the vote. 

“This proposal is actually the fourth proposal to dam the Gila. We hope this is the fourth and last proposal,” Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, told NM Political Report. 

Siwik boiled down her opposition to the proposal bluntly: “It’s expensive [and] the water is unaffordable.”

The proposal would have seen 14,000 acre-feet of water diverted each year from the Gila River for landowners to use in New Mexico. The state is entitled to that amount of water each year from the river as part of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act.

Groups call on legislators to cap environmental budget cuts at 3 percent

As state legislators convene in Santa Fe for a special session to tackle the budget, environmental groups are asking lawmakers to limit cuts to the state’s environmental regulatory agency budgets to 3 percent. 

A group of 28 organizations, ranging from conservation and wildlife advocates to renewable energy proponents, sent a letter to members of the state Senate Finance Committee and the state House Financial Affairs Committee last week. 

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) — the state’s two main environmental regulatory departments — each saw their respective budgets erode during the Susana Martinez administration. 

NMED’s general fund was cut by 32 percent between fiscal years (FY) 2012 and 2019, which was the last fiscal year budget passed by the legislature in 2018 before Martinez left office, according to a report released by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. EMNRD saw its budget drop roughly 24 percent under the Martinez administration between fiscal years 2012 and 2019. 

In Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first budget proposal for FY2020, NMED’s general fund increased 6 percent compared to FY2019, while EMNRD saw a 9 percent increase in fiscal year 2020 over 2019. The departments saw similar increases in the FY2021 budget, which goes into effect on July 1 and will be amended during the special session due to the COVID-19 caused economic slowdown and dropping oil and gas prices. 

“The 2021 budget saw about a 7 percent increase for those agencies from 2020,” said Ben Shelton, policy and political director at Conservation New Mexico, and who coordinated the letter. “What we’re trying to do is hold that reduction in increase as low as possible.”  

While the recent budget increases are steps in the right direction, the departments’ budgets are still much lower than they were at the end of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration in 2011. 

“These guys got cuts in the Martinez administration where they got cut below what they needed to do the minimum of their jobs — particularly EMNRD,” Shelton said. 

Both departments are suffering from high vacancy rates as a result. NMED has a 19 percent vacancy rate, with only seven inspectors in charge of monitoring 7,700 air emitting sources, two inspectors in charge of monitoring 700 groundwater sources, and seven inspectors for monitoring nearly 3,000 hazardous waste sources. 

EMNRD’s Oil Conservation District (OCD), which regulates oil and gas activities in the state, had its budget decline 26 percent under the Martinez administration. The OCD is responsible for oil and gas regulatory activities ranging from permitting new wells, inspecting abandoned wells, ensuring compliance with permits, and enforcing the state’s oil and gas rules.

Land and Water Conservation Fund one step closer to securing full funding after Senate passage

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is poised to receive permanent funding after the U.S. Senate passed legislation Wednesday. The fund, created by Congress in 1965 to support public land management using offshore oil and gas royalties, will receive $900 million annually under the bill, marking just the second time since its creation that the program will be fully funded.  

The Great American Outdoors Act, which environmental groups are calling “a historic public lands conservation package,” passed the Senate Wednesday with what some have dubbed “rare” bipartisan support on a 73-25 vote. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana. New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich both supported the bill and pushed initiatives to fully support the LWCF, which will pour millions into public lands across the state. 

“My father, Stewart Udall, helped enact this wildly successful program as Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and I’m glad the full promise of LWCF is finally being realized,” Udall said in a statement. He called the fund “one of the most successful conservation tools we have to protect and expand our public lands” and said it is “a historic game-changer for New Mexico and the nation.”

The fund “has helped preserve many treasured places in New Mexico — including the Valles Caldera, Ute Mountain, and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge,” Heinrich said in a separate statement.