Legislators told of possible low-emission cement production at Escalante Power Plant

Beyond coal plants, carbon capture and sequestration may help with cement manufacturing and create new industry in New Mexico, according to a presentation at the Legislative Finance Committee on Thursday. Others, however, remain skeptical of the industry’s viability. Wiley Rhodes, co-founder of Escalante H2 Power, said a retrofit of the shuttered Escalante Power Plant could do more than just generate electricity. Escalante Power Plant is currently owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., Escalante H2 Power is planning on purchasing the plant. Rhodes’ company is working to make Escalante Power Plant the first coal-fired power plant to be transformed into a hydrogen facility.

In rural New Mexico, water systems need funding and support

As state Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, listened to discussions about drought in New Mexico during a legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting, she thought about the rural water systems in her district in Rio Arriba County, where she said four utilities have required temporary backup water as infrastructure failed. There are hundreds of small community-owned water systems in the state known as mutual domestic water users associations. Herrera urged state lawmakers to remember that rural water systems may need more support than the urban water supplies. “Most of the clean drinking water in rural communities depends on these volunteer mutual domestic water systems,” Herrera said in an interview with NM Political Report. “And we haven’t really given them the resources to do the job that they need to do.”

She said most of the small, mutual domestic water systems are struggling.

Community solar bill heads to the House

A bill that would allow communities to subscribe to local solar facilities passed the Senate floor Thursday. 

SB 84, sponsored by Democratic Senators Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos and Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, would direct the Public Regulation Commission to evaluate existing community solar programs and develop and adopt rules for a program in New Mexico by April 2022. Each project would be limited to producing 5 megawatts of electricity each year, and facilities would be limited to generating 100 megawatts per year, which Lopez said is about 1 percent of the total annual electricity generation in the state. 

Each project would require an anchor tenant that would subscribe to no more than 40 percent of the project’s electricity capacity, and each project would need at least 10 subscribers before construction can begin. Lopez said the bill targets low income participation. 

“Community solar is favorable to low income participants, because it typically offers them savings, no upfront costs, and no penalty to cancel the subscription to a community solar facility,” Lopez said. “Thirty percent of the annual program capacity is reserved for low income customers and low income service organizations, and the PRC will issue guidelines to ensure the low income carve out is achieved each year.” 

Lopez also highlighted the economic benefits of community solar. She pointed to a UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research study that estimated community solar could deliver some $517 million in economic benefits and would generate $2.9 million in tax revenue for the state.

Community solar bill heads to Senate floor

A bill that would enable communities to subscribe to solar electricity without needing to install solar panels on their homes passed the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee Thursday. The bill would direct the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) to develop and adopt rules to implement a community solar program in the state. 

Community solar refers to “large, local solar arrays” that are “shared by individual community members who receive credits on their electricity bills for their portion of the power produced,” said Democratic Senator Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, who is one of 10 sponsors of SB 84. 

“Community solar makes solar power available to people who can’t access it for reasons such as renting, finances, apartment ownership, home type, etc,” Stefanics said. She added that the bill would likely lead to job creation and other economic benefits. 

“There’s a great deal of job creation in the solar industry. There are lease payments to landowners, as well as to other sectors, and many economic benefits to the state and counties,” Stefanics said. 

Both PNM and El Paso Electric spoke against the bill, as did Xcel Energy and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce. The bill was supported by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Kit Carson Electric Coop in Taos, the Coalition of Sustainable Communities New Mexico, Earthcare, YUCCA and the NAVA Education Project, among other groups. 

The committee spent about four hours debating the technical aspects of the bill.  Much of the debate focused on impacts to non-participating ratepayers and low-income ratepayers in communities that might adopt community solar, as well as tribal communities.

Lujan Grisham says she’d veto bill limiting executive power

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday she would veto legislation that would curb the power of the executive branch over extending public health orders. “In their current context, yes,” she said when asked whether she would veto such a bill. That’s not to say governors should be “omnipotent,” Lujan Grisham. “That’s why you have three branches of government. That’s why you have elections.

Bills addressing water management and utility securitization pass committees

A bill that would require the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer (OSE) to consider climate change implications when making water rights decisions narrowly passed the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee Thursday. 

HB 95, sponsored by Santa Fe Democratic Rep. Andrea Romero, would require the State Engineer to conduct analyses on climate change-related impacts to the state’s water resources when approving or denying permits. The bill mandates the OSE to develop climate change impact rules based on the best available science to inform permit approvals. 

Dr. David Gutzler, a climate science expert and professor at UNM, speaking on behalf of the bill, pointed to a water resources study being conducted by the Interstate Stream Commission. Gutzler said he believed the study “could be leveraged as input to the development of a robust and science-based climate change assessment that could be used operationally by the State Engineer’s office.”

The original bill was replaced with a substitute bill on Thursday that Romero said incorporates feedback from the committee at an earlier hearing and that now better achieves the goals of the legislation of “ensuring that the Office of the State Engineer takes climate science into account as a rationale for why a permit is approved or denied.” 

The bill would also require the OSE to publish its rationale for approving or denying water rights permits “so that the public knows and understands how these decisions are being made.”

But State Engineer John D’Antonio told committee members that his office has concerns about the bill. He called the rulemaking provision of the bill an unfunded mandate that he said would conflict provisions in HB 9, a separate piece of legislation that’s currently under consideration in the House State Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. 

D’Antonio also argued that the state is addressing water scarcity through Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 50-year state water plan. 

“Climate change will affect New Mexico and our stream systems on a broad scale. The best way to address it is on a statewide or stream system basis,” D’Antonio said.

Produced water bill dies in committee

A bill that would have made it illegal for oil and gas operators to spill produced water died in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday. Produced water is the toxic flowback water generated in oil extraction. 

SB 86, sponsored by Democratic Senators Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque and Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, sought to address many of the issues the state is now facing in managing scarce freshwater supplies and increasing volumes of produced water. “This bill does two things,” Sedillo Lopez told legislators. “First, it compels industry to reduce the volume of and reuse its waste by prohibiting freshwater use in fracking when produced water can be used instead. And second, it fulfills the original intent of the Produced Water Act of 2019 by mandating safeguards to protect public health, the environment and freshwater from this waste stream.”

Norm Gaume, a water expert and former director of the Interstate Stream Commission, and who currently sits on the Produced Water Research Consortium’s technical steering committee, spoke in support of the bill.

Fracking pause bill advances, ETA amendments bill fails

A bill that would pause new fracking permits in the state passed the Senate Conservation Committee on Saturday, while an attempt to amend the Energy Transition Act died in the committee. 

Albuquerque Democrats Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero co-sponsored SB 149. The bill would enact a four-year pause on fracking permits while the state conducted studies 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. “Nothing [would] affect existing operating wells,” Sedillo Lopez said. “It’s to pause those [new permits] for four years to give us two long sessions and two short sessions to hear from our regulating agencies about what is the impact of this technology on our air, land and water, and also to make recommendations for what should happen.”

Biologist and author Dr. Sandra Steingraber, who spoke in support of the bill as an expert witness, highlighted the public health impacts that have been linked to living near fracking wells in a growing body of peer-reviewed research. 

“Smog and toxic air pollution follows fracking wherever it goes and there again is no real good way to mitigate this, because the air pollution begins as soon as the drill bit goes into the ground,” Steingraber said. “So far, the public health problems associated with drilling and fracking include poor birth outcomes among babies born to pregnant women living near fracking sites, respiratory impacts cancer, heart disease—and more recently we understand, mental health problems.”

RELATED: Bill would halt new fracking permits while state conducts impact studies

The bill was widely supported by local environmental groups, including Tewa Women United, the New Mexico Environmental Law, the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, New Energy Economy and YUCCA. 

The legislation was opposed by oil and gas groups, including the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and lobbyists for Occidental Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, Excel Energy and Chevron, which argued that fracking is safe and that concerns about the technology are overblown.

Bill to address produced water spills passes committee

The Senate Conservation Committee passed a bill that would make spilling produced water, the toxic flowback water generated in oil extraction, illegal. 

Democratic Senators Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque and Liz Stefanics of Cerillos sponsored SB 86, which would allow state regulators to impose fines on operators for produced water and oil and gas-related spills. It would also limit the use of freshwater in the oil field and require produced water be tracked by operators. “The oil and gas industry uses a massive amount of water that is impacting agricultural use, and has the potential to completely deplete our aquifers, Sedillo Lopez said during a committee hearing, pointing to the Ogallala aquifer in southeastern New Mexico. “At an average of two or more spills of this toxic waste today, it threatens to turn the Permian Basin and other areas where fracking occurs into a wasteland — or as some have called it, a sacrifice zone.”

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

The bill would also direct the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to adopt rules relating to produced water and other waste fluids that are “protective of public health, worker safety and natural resources.” 

Sedillo Lopez said the bill would increase transparency and accountability around oil and gas operations in the state, including tracing the use of freshwater in the oil field and requiring operators to disclose the toxins in spilled and released produced water, including naturally-occurring radiation. Norm Gaume, a water expert and former director of the Interstate Stream Commission who spoke in support of the bill, noted that many oil and gas operators are already limiting the use of freshwater in their operations.

New Mexico Senate committee backs rent, mortgage relief for businesses

The state Senate’s Tax, Business and Transportation Committee unanimously endorsed a two-pronged proposal Tuesday designed to provide businesses with economic relief and also stimulate job growth, part of an ongoing effort to help New Mexicans struggling with the fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, expands the Local Economic Development Act in two ways. “The first one provides [$200 million in] immediate economic assistance in the way of grants for thousands of small and midsize businesses to use for mortgage, rent or lease abatement so that they can rehire workers or new employees,” Alicia J. Keyes, Cabinet secretary of the Economic Development Department, told lawmakers. In recent discussions with business owners, Keyes said their No. 1 concern is the debt they’ve incurred on their rents.