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.
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.
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.
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.
Dave Rogers is a reverend in Carlsbad and founder of the group Citizens Caring For the Future. The group started, he said, out of concern in the community about the environmental and health impacts of oil and gas development that was booming in the New Mexico side of the Permian Basin—until the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil market downturn brought production to a near halt in 2020.
“[We] began to realize we could not continue just allowing this to happen. We were concerned for our health, for our land, for our environment, for our planet,” Rogers said during a recent webinar on methane emissions in the state. The group now advocates for “reasonable, responsible regulation and credible enforcement,” Rogers said, “because none of those things exist in the Permian Basin right now.”
Right now, his group is focusing on making sure the new methane and emissions rules being developed by the state’s two regulating bodies are stringent enough to curb the state’s exploding methane emissions. Some state legislators have recently floated the idea of delaying implementing any new emissions-focused regulations on oil and gas companies until the industry—and the state’s budget—has recovered from the downturn.
New Mexico’s environmental and oil and gas regulators are facing budget cuts for the next fiscal year, as nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic and a significant downturn in the oil market has depleted the state’s budget.
The budget reductions come after years of attrition in regulatory budgets under the Susana Martinez administration. The New Mexico Environment Department’s budget 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. The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (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. But some of that progress will be reversed as the state grapples with the fiscal ramifications of a nearly year-long public health emergency and an oil boom bust.
NMED to cut back on some services
NMED submitted a $89.2 million budget request for fiscal year 2022.
Howard Hutchinson bought his first parcel of land in southwestern New Mexico near the Gila Wilderness in the 1970s.
“I hitchhiked into here in 1973. And I said, ‘Wow, paradise. This is awesome. This is where I want to live to raise my family,’” Hutchinson told NM Political Report.
At the time, Hutchinson said he was a “radical environmentalist,” and an early member of the controversial environmental group Earth First.
But Hutchinson said his views on environmentalism have evolved since then.
“As I aged, and became closer with a lot of the longtime residents here, I began to realize that there was a land use ethic that they had developed quite naturally,” he said. “You don’t develop that land use ethic, and you don’t survive in the arid Southwest.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday morning in favor of New Mexico in a water dispute case with Texas involving the Pecos River Compact. The court denied a motion to review the Pecos River Master’s decision regarding evaporative losses that occurred while New Mexico was storing water upstream for Texas.
After a tropical storm hit the area in September 2014, the state of Texas asked New Mexico to store water it would normally deliver to Texas under the compact in the Brantley Reservoir while Texas grappled with flooding issues related to the storm. Texas finally asked for the water to be released in August 2015, but by then, roughly 20,000 acre-feet of water had evaporated. Under the compact’s River Master’s Manual, New Mexico is not responsible for making up evaporative water losses when the state is holding water at the request of Texas. In 2017, the river master determined that New Mexico’s delivery obligation would be reduced by 16,000 acre feet as a result of the evaporation.
But Texas petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision.
In a 7-1 ruling, the court determined that New Mexico was entitled to a delivery “credit” for the evaporated water, with Judge Samuel Alito dissenting in part.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released what it’s calling an “interim strategy” for addressing PFAS chemical contamination in wastewater discharges regulated through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process. While the vast majority of states in the U.S. have taken over NPDES permitting authority from EPA since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, New Mexico is one of only three states that still rely on EPA to handle NPDES permitting.
RELATED: Group says it will sue EPA over stormwater pollution in Los Alamos
The new PFAS guidance recommends EPA permit writers “consider including PFAS monitoring at facilities where these chemicals are expected to be present in wastewater discharges, including from municipal separate storm sewer systems and industrial stormwater permits.”
PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, refer to a family of at least 600 synthetic compounds that are widely used in commercial products ranging from fire-resistant carpeting to fast-food wrappers.
Research has linked exposure to the chemicals to a long list of health concerns, including increased risks for certain types of cancers, increased cholesterol, pregnancy complications and other health impacts. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health linked exposure to PFAS chemicals in infants to a decreased immune response to vaccinations at five years old. RELATED: Concerned leaders hopeful Biden administration will address PFAS contamination
The synthetic compounds have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they are not easily broken down. And research over the past 20 years indicates these chemicals are ubiquitous, according to David Andrews, senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
After cheering the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which secured permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), New Mexico wildlife and conservation advocates were shocked to learn every single project proposed to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) for LWCF funds was rejected.
The LWCF, created by Congress in 1965 to support public land management using offshore oil and gas royalties, received $900 million annually under the Great American Outdoors Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in August. It marked just the second time since its creation that the program is fully funded. The Great American Outdoors Act, which environmental groups considered a historic public lands conservation package, passed the Senate with what some dubbed “rare” bipartisan support on a 73-25 vote. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Republican U.S. Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana—both of whom relied heavily on the Act’s passage in their respective reelection campaigns. New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich also supported the bill, as did U.S. Reps.
Thursday night, a group of Indigenous community leaders gave presentations about the legacy of uranium mining in the state that still threatens the health and environment of their communities, decades after the last mines ceased operations.
From the 1940s through the early 1990s, New Mexico produced roughly 70 percent of the uranium in the United States, which was used in nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Members of Indigenous communities across the state did most of the dangerous mining of the radioactive material, and those communities are still struggling to hold the federal government accountable for cleaning up the toxic contamination that was left behind.
“We felt that there were a large portion of our communities across the state that still remain largely unaware of the major environmental justice impacts that uranium continues to have on so many individuals—especially our Indigenous communities—across the state,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which organized the online event.
“It’s very important that we recognize that there are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned mines, unsealed pits, mine entrances, tailing ponds, waste piles, highly radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from uranium mining and milling, many that have yet to be cleaned up and continue to pose significant health threats,” Necochea said. “This continued uranium contamination that we witness, and that our communities continue to face, is a clear example of environmental racism and an environmental injustice that continues.”
A state of sacrifice zones
Much of the uranium mining that occurred in New Mexico was on tribal lands and was performed by tribal members. The Grants Mining District and the nearby Navajo Nation is home to one of the country’s most productive uranium belts, and the region was one of the most intensely-mined areas in the U.S., according to Manuel Pino, a member of Acoma Pueblo and an organizer of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment (LACSE). Today, there are more than 1,000 remaining uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed or remediated.