Green Amendment proposal passes first committee

A proposed amendment to the New Mexico Constitution to protect the state’s natural resources and environment passed the Senate Rules Committee Monday on a party-line vote. 

Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Democratic state Senators Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque, Bill Soules of Las Cruces and Harold Pope Jr. of Albuquerque, would provide residents of New Mexico with environmental rights, including a right to a clean and healthy environment and a right to the preservation of the environment. Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, is the House sponsor of the legislation. If the legislation passes both chambers, it would go to the voters in 2022 to decide whether or not to add it to the state constitution. Sedillo Lopez previously told NM Political Report that the amendment is part of the national Green Amendment movement, which aims to enact protections for the environment within state constitutions. The idea was first championed by Delaware Riverkeeper and author Maya van Rossum, who visited the state in 2019 to campaign for a green amendment to be adopted in New Mexico.

Climate Solutions Act would reduce emissions statewide

A group of Democratic legislators filed a proposal aimed at lowering the state’s carbon footprint and reducing emissions across sectors. Albuquerque Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury is the sponsor of HB 9, with Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, and Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, cosponsoring. 

The Climate Solutions Act would establish a statewide target of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and direct state agencies to develop rules to realize those targets. It would also establish a Climate Leadership Council, which would be administratively attached to the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. 

The council would be responsible for developing a statewide framework for addressing climate change and developing a “sustainable” economy, including reaching a “net-zero carbon footprint” by 2050. 

RELATED: PNM wants customers to pay $300m to exit a coal plant

“The reason why this bill is so significant is that it addresses climate change from really three angles,” Stansbury said. 

First, she said, “it really sets our entire economy on to a carbon-free pathway” by setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. 

Second, it provides support to communities in the state most impacted by climate change. That support would include providing resources, tools and research to “help communities actually do planning and preparation and to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” she said. Third, the bill addresses the state’s need to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels, she said. 

“It takes recommendations that came from a year long process involving a workforce development study and a number of organizations across the state to look at how do we help our economy prepare for a more sustainable and resilient future,” Stansbury said.

Bills on community solar and air quality permit denials pass committees

The state Senate Conservation Committee passed a community solar bill Thursday after a lengthy debate and multiple amendment proposals. Legislators have introduced various community solar bills over the past years, but the newest version of the bill was drafted by a task force that was created during the last session. 

Senator Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, presented SB 84, the Community Solar Act, to the committee. The bill would direct the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) to develop and adopt rules to implement a community solar program, in which communities can subscribe to local solar facilities that are established by an anchor tenant. 

“It’s making solar power available to people who maybe are renting, maybe, who cannot afford it, who don’t have the property to put it on, or who maybe have covenants against rooftop [solar] or don’t have enough land to put it on or enough financing,” Stefanics said. 

The bipartisan task force was composed of state legislators, solar energy advocates, representatives of the state’s investor-owned utilities and rural electric coops, as well as community members. Input from the All Pueblo Council of Governors was also included in this year’s version of the bill. 

“We tried to include anyone who wanted to be involved,” Stefanics said. 

Stefanics also pointed to a recent study funded by UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research that estimated the program could deliver “over $500 million in economic benefits to various sectors of the economy and [create] close to 4,000 high quality jobs over the next five years,” Stefanics said. 

The study also estimated the program could bring in “$2.9 million in tax revenues annually for the state, funded through private investments,” she added. 

Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, who is a cosponsor of the bill, noted that the legislation would leave many details of the program—such as consumer protections for subscribers, ensuring that utilities are fairly compensated for interconnection, and determining subscriber bill credit rates—to be developed by the PRC in its rulemaking. 

Representatives of PNM and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce spoke in opposition of the bill, over concerns that the legislation would be at odds with the Energy Transition Act. 

“Everyone from the government to the legislature, local businesses to the environmental advocates, our low income partners and our unions worked really hard to get that Energy Transition Act passed. And it lays the foundation towards 80 percent renewables and 100 percent zero-carbon energy for energy New Mexican,” the representative said.

Bills on clean fuel standard, air regulations and an environmental database clear first committees

Three environmental bills passed their first committees Tuesday. The Senate Conservation Committee passed two bills, one related to a clean fuel standard and the other related to improving air quality in the state, while the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill to create an environmental database. 

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, presented SB 11, the Clean Fuel Standard Act, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said is one of her legislative priorities for the session. The bill would direct the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) Environmental Improvement Board to promulgate rules creating a clean fuel standard for transportation fuels. Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, is the House sponsor of the bill. 

“It’s a smart approach to positively impact our economy, our public health, and our environment,” Stewart said. She estimated that the bill would yield a 4.7 million ton reduction of carbon emissions from the state’s transportation sector “with no change needed in consumer behavior.”

Stewart also said the bill would generate sustainable growth for the state’s economy by supporting a new industry. 

“We’re estimating about $47 million annually in economic investments by enacting this bill and merely by announcing the bill, our agencies are hearing from new businesses that want to come to New Mexico, and others that want to expand here,” Stewart said.

Biden’s first day: Trump’s methane rule and U.S. rejoins Paris Agreement

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.

NMED beings PFAS cleanup without military help

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.

WPX settles with family over produced water spill

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.

Bill would halt new fracking permits while state conducts impact studies

State Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, plans to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would enact a four-year pause on fracking permits while studies are conducted to determine the impacts of fracking on agriculture, environment and water resources and public health. 

The bill directs state agencies and departments, including the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the New Mexico Environment Department, the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture to study and report annually to the governor and the relevant legislative committees on the impacts of fracking on the respective sectors. 

“It’s not a moratorium on fracking or banning fracking altogether. It is simply a pause on issuing new permits for four years,” Sedillo Lopez told NM Political Report. 

“The bill requires agencies to study the issue of fracking, and to give recommendations to the legislature for legislation and rules that would be appropriate to deal with the consequences of fracking on our air, our land, our water, and our health,” she said. 

The 2021 session will be the third time state legislators will consider the bill, which failed to get on the call during the last 30-day session in January 2020. In even-numbered years, only budget bills and bills on topics chosen by the governor can be discussed by the Legislature. The 2021 version of the bill hasn’t been prefiled. 

RELATED: State environmental regulators face thinner budgets amid pandemic and oil slump

In past legislative sessions, the bill has received pushback from Republicans and legislators representing districts in the state’s two energy-producing zones. A fiscal impact report on the bill from 2019 estimated the state would lose $3.5 billion by halting new fracking permits for four years, but an updated analysis is needed to better predict the possible fiscal implications moving forward. 

Sedillo Lopez said that the bill has support among many environmental groups and concerned residents, but added that she was surprised at the opposition it has received among other groups. 

“The reaction was actually stunning.

‘We’ve got a waste issue’: Groups press state for stricter methane rules despite budget concerns

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.

State environmental regulators face thinner budgets amid pandemic and oil slump

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.