Senate Appropriations Committee removes Chaco protections from DOI bill

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee removed language from a FY2021 budget bill for the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) that would ensure the ten mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon remains in place for another year. 

In late 2019, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich were successful in adding in language to the DOI’s FY2020 appropriations bill that ensured the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would refrain from leasing parcels of land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park through FY2020, which ended in October. A continuing resolution was passed in October to extend the buffer through December 11. 

But the new appropriations bill, unveiled Tuesday by the Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee, did not contain language to extend that buffer for another year. 

The committee said it “continues to expect that the Department [of Interior] will not conduct any oil and gas leasing activities authorized by section 17 of the Mineral Leasing Act (30 U.S.C. 226) in the withdrawal area,” its explanatory statement about the appropriations. The committee pointed to cultural resources investigations that have been awarded federal funding to “identify culturally and historically significant areas and sites in areas of high energy development potential within the region” and said it expects DOI will not lease lands in the buffer “until the completion of the investigations.”

RELATED: Tribes, archaeologists are working to identify sites in Greater Chaco for protections from oil and gas

The omission could result in parcels of land within the buffer zone being made available for oil and gas development during the next leasing auction for the region, which is slated for January 2021. That will be the last leasing auction under the Trump administration. 

New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Secretary Lynn Trujillo said she was concerned about the new bill “because it would eliminate an existing prohibition on issuing oil and gas leases” in the buffer zone. 

“The greater Chaco landscape is a sacred place to New Mexico’s Pueblos and Tribes, and it has been targeted for oil and gas drilling for far too long,” Trujillo said in a statement. 

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance executive director Mark Allison said the omission “confirms that too many members of Congress value oil and gas companies over our Native communities and their shared cultural heritage.”

“It’s disheartening to see that a UNESCO World Heritage Site cherished by Tribes and Pueblos continues to be placed squarely in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry,” Allison said in a statement. 

There is a separate piece of legislation, which was sponsored by the state’s congressional delegation and which passed the House in 2019, that would permanently remove all federal public lands within ten miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future oil and gas lease sales. That bill has not had a hearing yet in the Senate.

As methane rulemaking progresses, questions about exemptions linger

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said his department is working through hundreds of comments related to a proposed rule for regulating air pollution associated with oil and gas development. 

“We received over 400 comments on our rule,” Kenney told state legislators during a recent committee meeting. 

Last year, NMED and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) were tasked with developing new rules targeting methane emissions in the state resulting from oil and gas activity. While EMNRD’s rule addresses methane emissions directly, NMED’s draft rule instead targets volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from oil and gas wells. 

Both NMED and EMNRD released draft proposals for their respective rules in July for public comment, after a year of work by the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, which was composed of oil and gas representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders. EMNRD released a finalized version of its rule in mid-October. On Nov. 4, the Oil Conservation Commission agreed to set a hearing for the finalized rule in January. 

But NMED still has some work to do before it releases a finalized version of its rule, Kenney said.

Guv’s climate-focused task force delivers progress report

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Climate Change Task Force gave an update Friday on the state’s progress in reaching Lujan Grisham’s climate change goals in its second annual report. Those goals include reducing emissions, increasing renewable energy generation and decarbonizing the transportation sector.  

Lujan Grisham said her administration’s commitment to fighting climate change has only grown stronger this year, pointing to wildfire and drought conditions. 

“We are dead set against allowing climate change to bring about the next public health crisis,” she said in a statement. 

New Mexico produces more than twice the national average of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Those high emissions are “largely the result of our greenhouse gas-intensive oil and gas industry, which makes up a significant portion of our overall greenhouse gas emissions profile,” the report said. 

Data in the report indicates that methane emissions continue to be a problem for the state. Source: New Mexico Climate Change Task Force

Nationally, methane accounts for just 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but in New Mexico, it accounts for 35 percent. 

The report found that emissions generated from the oil and gas sector in the past few years have been greater than previously estimated, citing a recent peer-reviewed study from Colorado State University that analyzed emissions in New Mexico. The oil and gas sector generated 60 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, which is nearly four times more than previously estimated based on national data, according to the study. 

The Task Force created nine interagency “Climate Action Teams” over the last year to tackle the state’s emissions problem and spearhead energy efficiency and sustainability work.

Lawsuit asks Wildlife Services to update its research on ‘outdated’ wildlife management program

The conservation-focused WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, challenging the science behind what the group calls an “outdated wildlife-killing program.” The group filed the lawsuit in a federal district court. 

Wildlife Services is a secretive agency within the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that enters into contracts with counties and local governments to remove, euthanize and disperse wildlife that are considered threats to agriculture, livestock and ranching operations. 

Wildlife Services killed over 1.2 million native animals across the U.S. in 2019, including thousands of animals here in New Mexico. The agency is most well-known for its predator control programs, in which federal agents use lethal and nonlethal techniques to remove coyotes, foxes, wolves— including endangered Mexican gray wolves—mountain lions, bears and other predators from areas where those animals threaten livestock. 

RELATED: With mother’s death, the endangered Prieto wolf pack is gone

But the wildlife program extends beyond just predator control. Nationwide, Wildlife Services targets a wide range of wildlife species for removal, including an array of birds such as sandhill cranes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons and owls; and mammals such as beavers, rabbits, hares and prairie dogs. 

The impacts of those removals on the natural ecosystems are more or less unknown, according to Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, because the agency has never completed an environmental impact statement for its program in this state. “Wildlife are the engineers, along with plant species and then microbes and fungi and stuff, that actually make ecosystems function,” said Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Removing wildlife—and that integral role that they play in ecosystem function—breaks down the way those ecosystems do things like self-manage, clean water, clean air, resupply soils with nutrients, things like that.”

“Especially in an era when droughts and other impacts of the climate crisis are being felt across the west—but especially in dry ecosystems like those in New Mexico—removing those very engineers that make those ecosystems function is problematic,” Smith said.

Connecticut-based utility company agrees to buy PNM Resources

The company that owns New Mexico’s largest utility PNM is being acquired by Avangrid, a Connecticut-based utility owner, in a merger deal totalling $8.3 billion. The two companies announced the deal early Wednesday. 

Avangrid operates natural gas and electric utilities and renewable energy generation assets across 24 states. The investor-owned company’s headquarters are located in Orange, Connecticut, but the majority shareholder is Spain-based Iberdrola, S.A., which is the third largest utility company in the world. 

Avangrid’s renewable energy-focused arm is considered one of the largest in the world. It’s the third largest wind energy operator in the U.S., with 7.4 gigawatts of installed wind and solar capacity. The company owns 1.9-gigawatt capacity wind projects in New Mexico and Texas and 200 megawatts of wind and solar capacity in Arizona.

‘We’re all in the same storm.’ Some voters worry politicians aren’t taking climate change seriously enough

For 18-year-old Artemisio Romero y Carver, a single piece of legislation changed his outlook on participating in democracy. 

Romero y Carver, a steering committee member of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA), said that before 2019, he was not engaged with the politics of a government that he felt didn’t represent him or address his concerns. 

“Then I read the Green New Deal. For the first time I saw a document, a piece of legislation, something that was part of the U.S. government that didn’t seem antithetical to my own life, that seemed like a genuine representation of my interests, in policy,” he said. 

Romero y Carver was not alone. The Green New Deal, introduced by U.S. Rep. for New York Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a Democrat from New York, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, galvanized a sector of the electorate, even if it didn’t get very far in Congress. The legislation, a set of goals which outlined an aggressive transition to renewables that included support for fossil fuel-dependent communities and the electrification of the U.S. transportation sector, was quickly written off by many moderate Democrats and the entire Republican Party at the national level as being unrealistic.  

But for Romero y Carver, and other young voters who are deeply concerned about climate change, the plan was an example of exactly the type of policies that are needed to address the climate crisis head on. 

“In general, I find that people my age recognize climate change and recognize the immediate need for bold action. But we also don’t feel that that is ever possible when it comes to voting.

Oil Conservation Commission agrees to hear proposal for produced water spills

The Oil Conservation Commission agreed Thursday to set a hearing date for a proposed rule that would make spilling produced water illegal. The decision was in response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in September calling on the OCC to adopt rules to make spilling produced water illegal. 

Under the current regulatory framework, oil and gas operators face little to no consequences for spilling the toxic fracking fluid in the state, as long as they report the spill to the Oil Conservation Division. Produced water spills are very common in New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern region of the state in the Permian Basin. In the vast majority of cases, no penalties are assessed against the operator. “Oil and Gas wastewater, aka produced water, is toxic.

States faces billions in well plugging costs as Fed buys millions in oil and gas bonds

Just a few weeks after the pandemic hit New Mexico, the price of oil plunged into negative territory for the first time in history. Production screeched to a halt worldwide, workers were laid off, and wells were temporarily plugged while operators hoped to wait out a price war between two of the world’s largest oil suppliers, Russia and Saudi Arabia. More than six months later, the oilfields in New Mexico are starting to show signs of life. Some of the wells that were shut in earlier in the pandemic are now back online, though just 47 well rigs—which drill new wells—are up and running, representing 40 percent of those operating in 2019 before the pandemic hit. 

“We’re hearing anecdotally that some producers are choosing to restart some of that production. “We’re still holding fairly steady, with a rig count in the 40s,” Robert McEntyre, director of communications at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said.

Indigenous leaders and activists call for solution for To’Hajiilee water crisis

Indigenous community leaders and activists held a virtual information session on Indigenous People’s Day to bring awareness to a water crisis in To’Hajiilee, a Diné community 20 miles west of Albuquerque. 

The community of roughly 2,500 is currently relying on just one supply well, which pumps water up from the Rio Puerco aquifer. The water levels in the aquifer have dropped in recent decades, and what water that’s left is filled with corrosive dissolved solids that eat through the pump equipment and wreak havoc on the indoor plumbing systems of the residents in To’Hajiilee. 

The Navajo Nation owns rights to surface water that could be piped into To’Hajiilee and serve the community. To’Hajiilee and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) have already devised a project plan to build a pipeline that would transport the water from a holding tank in the county’s far western boundaries to To’Hajiilee. 

But plans to access and transport that water are being thwarted by a development firm that hasn’t agreed to sell a two-mile easement for the pipeline. RELATED: A ‘humanitarian crisis’: To’Hajiilee’s aquifer is running out of water

“I thought today would be a really, really important day and an important message to share in front of my children that we are important, we are here, we need to be seen, we need to be heard and what better day to do it than on Indigenous People’s Day,” said Renee Chaco Aragon, a resident of To’Hajiilee and mother of ten. “We need people that are willing to listen, take time out of their lives and out of their day, to help us in our crisis.”

It’s not uncommon for the community’s single supply well to go down, Aragon said, disrupting daily life for everyone in the community. 

“It is a very nerve-wracking thing to deal with on a day to day basis.

Los Alamos County looks to nuclear for carbon-free power

On one of the hottest days this summer, Los Alamos County nearly ran out of power. 

The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington unexpectedly went down, leaving the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities scrambling to make up the energy. Several other providers were unable to deliver power to the county for various reasons, including transmission line constraints. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this, the people I work with have never seen anything like this,” said Los Alamos Power Network Manager Jordan Garcia during a Board of Public Utilities meeting in August. “We were all on our own to make up that difference.” 

All said and done, the county paid over a million dollars over a couple of days to keep the lights—and the air conditioning—on for its customers. The San Juan Generating Station is coal-fired—considered the most “reliable” energy sources because it can deliver the same amount of power all day every day, as long as it has coal to burn. But as states increasingly adopt clean energy mandates, and more renewables come online, utility managers fear more incidents like this one may occur more frequently. 

The electricity markets in the west are changing, and that could further strain the county’s access to reliable power.