Fighting fire with fire: Forest managers rethink fire ecology in New Mexico

There’s a stretch of land in the Jemez Mountains that has been empty for decades. It’s a burn scar from a fire that burned in the 1950s. 

The vegetation is still recovering from that fire. Cynthia Naha, a member of the Hopi tribe who works for Santo Domingo Pueblo, said she saw some trees returning to the area when she visited during a recent trip.  

“We’re starting to see some of that timber come back,” Naha told NM Political Report. “Seventy years and you see that regeneration there.”

The 1950 burn scar, along with burn scars left by more recent catastrophic fires in the area, including the Cerro Grande fire of 2001 and the Las Conchas fire of 2011, serve as a historical record carved into the landscape, documenting the legacy of fire suppression that governed forest management for most of the 20th century. 

As the climate warms and aridification spreads across much of the west, it’s clear the threat of catastrophic fires isn’t going away—in fact, it’s getting worse. But forest managers are increasingly turning to landscape-scale management, and large prescribed burns, as one tool to keep forests healthy and reduce the risk of a megafire. 

“At some level we have a choice,” said Zander Evans, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Stewards Guild.

A ‘humanitarian crisis’: To’Hajiilee’s aquifer is running out of water

The Diné community of To’Hajiilee is named after a spring in the area, which at one point sputtered up enough freshwater to fill one bucket after another. That’s what the name references, roughly translated into English. Today, the segment of Rio Puerco aquifer that is located beneath the village, which sits just outside Albuquerque near I-40, is running out of water. “It appears the aquifer has been decreasing,” George Mihalik, an engineer with the firm Souder, Miller and Associates, told NM Political Report. “If you go up and down the Rio Puerco aquifer, like Laguna Pueblo to the south, they have similar issues with the wells there.”

Souder, Miller and Associates is working with To’Hajiilee’s chapter government to improve the chapter’s internal water systems. Mihalik has been working with To’Hajiilee for at least eight years, he said.

Speakers tout NM’s climate leadership, but are quiet on oil and gas production

A group of local leaders touted New Mexico’s work towards addressing climate change during a recent webinar on public health and climate change. But speakers such as Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, and New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) Sec. Kathyleen Kunkel tip-toed around the state’s recent record oil production and its contribution to climate change. Fossil fuel combustion is the chief driver of carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change. While many states have begun transitioning to renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil and natural gas, New Mexico is the only state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy mandate while also producing record levels of oil. 

“For the [Gov. Michelle] Lujan Grisham administration, environmental issues are public health priorities,” Kunkel said in her remarks, adding that DOH is part of the governor’s climate change task force.

BIA: Navajo members can ‘work around’ connectivity issues to participate in online forum on oil and gas development

Representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) told participants of a virtual meeting Wednesday that they can “work around” connectivity issues to participate in information sessions about proposed amendments to the BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the Farmington field office. 

The comments came after Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso called for the BLM to “immediately and indefinitely suspend” the amendment process, in a letter that was read aloud by Mario Atencio during the online meeting. Tso represents the northwest New Mexico Navajo Chapters Baca/Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake. “The Navajo Nation is still in the midst of an extreme public health emergency caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Tso’s letter stated, adding that for a period of time, the Navajo Nation was experiencing an infection rate that was “among the highest in the world per capita.”

“The expectation for the Navajo Nation to engage in ‘meaningful consultation’ regarding the amendment of a resource management plan while the Navajo Nation has been singularly focused on fighting the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic is extremely burdensome to the Navajo Nation,” the letter stated. 

RELATED: Planting hope amid a plague

The BLM’s draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) was initially released in late February about a week before New Mexico recorded its first cases of COVID-19. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region. 

Tribal governments, environmental groups and members of the state’s Congressional delegation all subsequently called for the U.S. Department of the Interior to extend or halt the process until after the pandemic. 

RELATED: BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

BLM decided in early May to extend the deadline for submitting public comments by 120 days.That period ends September 25. But all of the public outreach and information sessions have since been conducted online. 

Sixty percent of Navajo Nation residents currently lack access to broadband, according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

NMED says it cannot deny oil and gas permits due to ozone concerns

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) doesn’t have the authority to deny permits to companies for oil and gas facilities over concerns about impacts to already high levels of ozone in Eddy and Lea counties, according to an NMED spokesperson. 

Ozone levels in Eddy and Lea counties are in violation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), while ozone levels in five other counties in the state—concentrated in the state’s two oil and gas producing zones in the northwest and southeast—are at 95 percent of the NAAQ standard. 

Source: https://www.env.nm.gov/air-quality/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2019/10/OAI_Presentation_09262019.pdf

The environmental organization WildEarth Guardians has filed challenges against permits authorized by NMED, arguing that the department is violating state law by continuing to issue permits for new oil and gas facilities that will contribute to a growing air quality problem in the Permian Basin. WildEarth Guardians argued in its appeals that NMED approved three permits and one natural gas plant “without considering the cumulative impacts on air quality, and the subsequent impact on public health.”

State law holds that NMED “shall deny any application for a permit or permit revision” if, when considering emissions after controls, the permit activity “will cause or contribute to air contaminant levels in excess of any National Ambient Air Quality Standard or New Mexico ambient air quality standard.”

“It’s a pretty straightforward requirement, it says, if there’s a problem, don’t make it worse,” Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians, told NM Political Report. 

RELATED: Worsening air quality in Permian Basin ‘cause for concern’

But NMED told NM Political Report that ozone levels are not always considered in permit approvals for oil and gas facilities. 

Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOx) are exposed to sunlight and warmer temperatures. While oil and gas facilities are known sources of VOCs and NOx emissions, these ozone precursor pollutants are regulated differently than the other air contaminants that are considered in the NAAQS. 

“These sources are classified as major or minor, depending on the amount of pollutants they emit (in tons per year),” NMED said in an email. Applications for permits for facilities that are identified as “major” sources of VOCs and NOx typically include air quality monitoring “to see how the emissions will impact ozone formation in the area where the source is located,” the Department said, but no modeling is done for minor sources on a facility-by-facility basis. 

Instead, NMED said it uses “protocols and guidance developed by EPA to determine if emissions from these sources meet significance levels considered to contribute to ozone concentrations.”

Ozone formation modeling is more complex than modeling for other types of air contaminants, because ozone is not directly emitted, but rather is the result of chemical reactions related to VOCs and NOx emissions and sunlight. 

Sufi Mustafa, Modeling and Emissions Inventory Unit Manager at NMED’s Air Quality Bureau, said ozone formation must be evaluated in relation to emission sources that are “hundreds of miles away” that could also be contributing to ozone formation in New Mexico, in his testimony submitted to the Environmental Improvement Board, which handles appeals of permit applications for NMED under the state’s Air Quality Control Act. 

“Predicting an individual facility’s contribution to the ozone levels in a region is extremely difficult compared to the directly emitted pollutants,” Mustafa said in the testimony, adding that NMED’s modeling guidelines do not require source-specific ozone modeling for minor sources. “None of the sources whose permits are being challenged by [WildEarth Guardians] have emissions that meet those significance levels,” the department told NM Political Report.

ISC: Intrepid water rights could make or break Pecos River settlement agreement

After a dry and hot summer this year, the Office of the State Engineer is preparing to pump water from wellfields in the Pecos Basin to meet the state’s water obligations to Texas in 2021. 

Despite a substantial credit under the Pecos River Compact, an agreement between New Mexico and Texas for water that flows through the Pecos River, dire drought conditions in the basin this year mean the state might need to spend as much as $1.4 million in pumping to deliver enough water to the New Mexico-Texas border. 

Source: Interstate Stream Commission

“If we go below that zero red line, we’re risking federal takeover of the river,” Nathaniel Chakeres, attorney for the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), told legislators in a presentation to the legislative Water and Natural Resources interim committee. 

But drought isn’t the only thing threatening the state’s deliveries, according to Chakeres. The ISC, along with the Carlsbad Irrigation District (CID), the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District (PVACD) and other water managers in the basin are currently protesting an industrial company’s claim to some of water in the Pecos River. Intrepid Potash is hoping to temporarily lease 5,700 acre feet of water from the Pecos to oil and gas operators in the area to use in extraction. The water is too saline for agricultural or municipal use, but could be used in lieu of potable freshwater in activities such as drilling. Intrepid, which says it holds water rights to 19,000 acre feet per year, has not diverted its water from the Pecos in years, due to extenuating circumstances.

‘Dereliction of duty’: 1.6 million gallons of produced water spilled so far in 2020

Penny Aucoin’s chickens are all dead.  

A produced water pipe located across the street from her Carlsbad-area home burst in mid-January, drenching her house and yard with the toxic water for an hour before it was shut off. In the aftermath, Aucoin was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. 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. 

The operator responsible for the spill, WPX, attributed the incident to equipment failure. The company removed 25 cubic yards of topsoil from the property, and paid for a third-party contractor to treat the remaining soil. 

Aucoin’s life has changed dramatically since the incident. What’s left of her yard is basically useless.

Udall: Interior Department should be ‘center’ of U.S. climate change response

U.S. Sen.Tom Udall said the U.S. Department of the Interior could play a pivotal role in the country’s response to climate change during an August 15 webinar hosted by conservation advocacy group WildEarth Guardians. “The Interior Department should be right at the center of climate, endangered ecosystems, taking better care of the land, coming up with a good land ethic and dealing with the diversity issues and the environmental justice issues,” Udall told WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning. “The next president is going to want to do something about climate, the Interior Department is going to be at the center of that.”

Udall’s father, Stewart Udall, served as Secretary of the Interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Udall referenced his father’s work at the Interior, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protecting species before the Endangered Species Act became law, and supporting diversity amid the Interior Department’s ranks. 

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

He lamented the recent exodus of career employees at the department under the Trump administration, which he referred to as “a hollowing out” of the department. 

“This is the saddest part. One of the things that my father used to talk about was what a treasure the Interior Department career employees are.

Guv slams federal methane regulation rollback

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham joined a choir of criticism Thursday directed towards the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the agency rescinded Obama-era regulations for methane emissions in the oil and gas sector. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the new regulation at a press conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The new rule removes requirements for operators to fix methane leaks discovered during bi-annual inspections on equipment at well sites and downstream that were installed after 2015, and relaxes other standards related to emissions. 

“EPA has been working hard to fulfill President Trump’s promise to cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Regulatory burdens put into place by the Obama-Biden Administration fell heavily on small and medium-sized energy businesses. Today’s regulatory changes remove redundant paperwork, align with the Clean Air Act, and allow companies the flexibility to satisfy leak-control requirements by complying with equivalent state rules.”

RELATED: Worsening air quality in Permian Basin ‘cause for concern’

“It is utterly disheartening and sadly unsurprising to hear once again that critical environmental regulations are being rolled back by the Trump administration, leaving states to fend for themselves,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Thursday afternoon. Lujan Grisham cited her administration’s work to develop more stringent methane rules for oil and gas operations in the state. 

“New Mexico is well on the way to putting in place our own robust and innovative regulations to curb methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, which will yield improved air quality and fewer climate change-inducing emissions,” she said.

As the climate warms, ranchers keep their eyes on the grass

Tom Sidwell says 2020 is the first year in forty that he’s been caught “flat-footed.” 

“And my wife won’t let me forget it,” he joked during a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Climate Hub webinar on drought in eastern New Mexico. 

Sidwell, who runs the grass-fed beef operation JX Ranch near Tucumcari with his wife Mimi, usually begins the year by clipping grass. The rancher has developed a system for estimating how much forage his pastures are producing by getting down on his hands and knees and using scissors to cut the grass poking up through a wooden frame measuring one square yard. He uses that frame to take samples of the grass growing in different areas of his pastures, collecting the clippings into plastic bags and weighing them with a hanging scale in his truck. Then he goes home to calculate how much forage he has, and how many cows he can support on it. That information is a crucial part of Sidwell’s yearly drought and grazing planning. 

But last summer, Sidwell had a full knee replacement.