PRC commissioner says he is ‘taking every case one at a time’ when deciding on recusals

An appointee to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission said his past work for the advocacy groups Western Resource Advocates—which frequently intervenes in PRC cases—will likely not lead to many conflicts of interest that would require him to recuse himself from cases. New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner Pat O’Connell told NM Political Report that the law requires him to recuse himself if he has offered testimony in a case that the PRC may deliberate on. 

This led to his announcement on Friday that he has recused himself from the commission’s discussions and considerations of the proposed merger of utility giant Avangrid and the Public Service Company of New Mexico. O’Connell previously worked for Western Resource Advocates, which intervened in many PRC cases including the merger case. In his role at WRA, O’Connell filed testimony supporting the proposed merger. The PRC ultimately rejected the merger and the companies appealed the decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Stansbury cosponsors legislation to improve wildland fire communication

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a New Mexico Democrat, said that a bill she is co-sponsoring builds upon her efforts in the state Legislature to modernize and standardize wildfire communication. Stansbury told NM Political Report that there is currently a patchwork of different agencies that use different tools when responding to wildfires. She said having standardized equipment is crucial to ensuring a fast response and saving lives and property. She is co-sponsoring the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Wildland Fire Communications and Information Dissemination Act with Rep. Young Kim, a Republican from California, who she has previously worked with on legislation. U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat, has also signed on as an original co-sponsor of the bill.

Carbon sequestration bill passes House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee

In the effort to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius (nearly 35 degrees Fahrenheit), technology like carbon capture and sequestration may be needed, according to reports from groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque, pointed to that report when presenting a bill that would provide $2.4 million of state money for New Mexico so that the state could seek primacy over Class VI wells. 

Dixon sponsored House Bill 174 along with Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces. 

The bill passed the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a 6-4 vote. It now heads to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Primacy would allow the state to permit the groundwater storage wells where captured carbon would be sequestered rather than waiting for federal approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dixon said this would allow for faster permitting, which she said is important in the race to cut emissions. Opponents of HB 174 say this money is unnecessary in part because the federal government already is providing $50 million for states so that they can pursue primacy over those wells.

Funding to support rebuilding after fire passes committee while spring burn ban dies

With questions remaining surrounding allocation of federal assistance, the communities impacted by the largest wildfire in state history are asking the legislature for $100 million to replace and repair infrastructure destroyed or damaged by the blaze. This funding would come in the form of zero-interest reimbursable loans. Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, and Reps. Ambrose Castellano, D-Las Vegas, and Joseph Sanchez, D-Alcalde, are sponsoring SB 6 to provide that funding to the impacted communities. The bill received unanimous support from the Senate Conservation Committee and now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

Bill to classify natural gas as renewable dies in first committee

A Republican-sponsored bill attempting to get combined cycle natural gas included in the definition of renewable energy died in its first committee on Tuesday. The bill’s lead sponsor was Rep. James Townsend of Artesia, a retired executive from a fossil fuel company. Townsend said that House Bill 96 attempted to fix a problem that is “readily apparent in New Mexico.” That problem, he said, is rolling brownouts and blackouts related to a shortage of electricity. Other sponsors include Rep. Randall Pettigrew of Lovington, Rep. Candy Spence Ezell of Roswell and Rep. Jimmy Mason of Artesia. The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted on party lines to table the bill.  

“Natural gas is not a renewable, but it works,” Townsend said in response to questions about the Energy Transition Act, which was not among the laws that would be amended to include combined cycle natural gas.

Legislation to help water utilities form regional partnerships advances

A bill that would allow two or more water or wastewater utilities to enter into an agreement to form a regional water authority passed the Senate Conservation Committee on a bipartisan 7-0 vote Tuesday morning. 

Democrats Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, Sen. Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics of Cerillos and Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo sponsored the bill. Current law requires legislative approval for water utilities to become regional authorities. Wirth said this legislation will not force utilities to enter into regional partnerships, but will make it easier for those that wish to do so. Wirth spoke about a small mutual domestic system with about 25 customers that ran out of water and is now seeking to regionalize. 

He said drilling wells is not an option for the system because it is cost-prohibitive. A regional water utility authority can help by joining efforts to pursue water resources.

Bill to create a public health and climate resiliency fund passes first committee

The Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee voted 7-2 in support of legislation that would create a public health and climate resiliency program as well as a fund that would assist communities in responding to emergencies related to climate change. The Public Health and Climate Resiliency bill, SB 5, is sponsored by Democrats Sen. Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics of Cerillos and Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson of Albuquerque. Stefanics presented the bill to the committee on Monday. Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, and Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, voted against the bill. 

Ingle said that the bill is “so loosely written that I’m a little bit frightened of…where it will lead us down the path and where we’ll actually get some answers.”

Ingle said during his time in the Legislature he has voted for things that he thought were good proposals, but ended up accomplishing very little. Should it pass, the statewide Public Health and Climate Program would be within the Department of Health’s Environmental Health and Epidemiology Bureau, which is in turn within the department’s Epidemiology and Response Division.

Wolf traveling in northern New Mexico captured, will be moved to Mexico

Wildlife officials have captured the wolf called Asha, or f2754, who made her way north of Interstate 40 and, last week, was roaming near Taos. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday in a press release that, in accordance with current policy, Asha was trapped and could be transferred back down to the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s current permit requires that any wolf that leaves the experimental population area be captured and returned either to the experimental population area or possibly transferred into captivity or into Mexico. Asha is currently residing at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility where wildlife officials hope to pair her with a male wolf. The pair will then be transferred to Mexico later this year.

Can conservation banking save the lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico?

Mack Kizer remembers seeing lesser prairie chickens on his family ranch in eastern New Mexico growing up. He said his children and grandchildren also have seen the birds on the ranch since childhood and he hopes they can continue to enjoy the unique animal’s presence long into the future. As the bird’s population dwindles, Kizer’s family is one of a group of landowners who have entered into agreements that allow them to be paid to preserve lesser prairie chicken habitat on their ranch. The bird’s habitat has become more and more fragmented. The birds living in eastern New Mexico and its neighboring section of Texas are now isolated from birds farther north in places like Oklahoma and Kansas. 

This month, the lesser prairie chicken’s southern population will join the list of animals in the United States that are considered endangered.

Environmental advocates push for stringent federal methane regulations during public hearing

Environmental advocates urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt the draft methane rules that were released in November or even to strengthen these proposals during a three-day virtual public hearing this week that ended Thursday. These advocates told EPA representatives that methane emissions have both health and climate impacts that disproportionately impact people of color. Wendy Atcitty, Diné (Navajo), spoke about the impacts of methane pollution on Native communities in northwest New Mexico. “I know firsthand how harmful methane pollution for the oil and gas industry is to our health, safety, Mother Earth and Father Sky,” she said. She spoke about growing up “surrounded by the protection of our tribe’s sacred mountains” and near the San Juan River.