Oil boom feeds NM budget, but environmental agencies left wanting

A boom in the oil and gas industry helped deliver a record-breaking $8.5 billion budget to New Mexico this year. Despite the windfall, lawmakers declined to give needed funds to the agencies responsible for regulating the increased pollution that such booms create. The state’s two primary environmental agencies, the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, will both receive modest bumps to their budgets from the state’s general fund, but these will still fall about $9 million short of the amounts the agencies and the governor requested in the Executive Budget Recommendation. Both environment agencies are responsible for a growing amount of oversight, from enforcing pollution restrictions and food safety to mitigating wildfires and curbing impacts from climate change. Despite the increasing duties, the proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2023 calls for NMED’s budget to be nearly 5 percent lower when adjusted for inflation than it was in 2008; EMNRD’s budget is almost 13 percent lower.

State agencies, national labs team up in zero-carbon hydrogen effort

Hydrogen will be a key energy source in meeting the state’s goals of net zero by 2050 and at least 45 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, according to New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney. Kenney spoke to NM Political Report after his agency, as well as the Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Economic Development Department, signed a memorandum of understanding with Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories with the stated purpose to “facilitate the development of sound science, advance technologies and inform national/state policies that could enable a path to zero carbon hydrogen.”

The national labs are no strangers to hydrogen. John Sarrao, deputy director for science, technology, and engineering at Los Alamos, said the lab has been working on hydrogen for about 40 years and has developed technology that is currently being deployed in pilot projects. Chris LaFleur, an engineer at Sandia, said the lab’s work looking at hydrogen as a clean energy alternative dates back more than 15 years and one of the areas that the lab has been focusing on is storage materials. She said the lab’s hydrogen expertise is part of its core mission. 

LaFleur said, in terms of research into storage, Sandia has been looking at storing hydrogen molecules “within the latticework of other materials.” She called this solid storage, as compared to what is currently more common—storing pressurized hydrogen in a tank. While the MOU addresses storage, LaFleur said the MOU’s focus is primarily on large-scale storage.

NMED secretary says federal regulations are needed for PFAS

Toxic chemicals that do not break down in the environment have been threatening water sources nationwide, witnesses told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during a hearing on Wednesday. Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, have received attention in New Mexico and nationwide as they were used in firefighting foam at two air force bases. This contamination has migrated from the military bases and led to water contamination at a dairy farm near Clovis in eastern New Mexico. While these chemicals can lead to cancer as well as other health effects, there are no federal rules regulating them. That needs to change, according to New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney who told the committee that a federal regulatory framework is needed for PFAS.

Environment Department says they need more funds for inspections, more

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney told state lawmakers his agency needs more staffing to inspect worker safety violations, ensure businesses are preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus and better protect the state’s air and water quality. Kenney implored members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to approve a $3.7 million increase in the Environment Department’s budget for fiscal year 2022, saying it would beef up understaffed teams that probe workplace safety issues. 

The increase would raise the agency’s general fund budget to $16.8 million and be on par with the 28 percent bump the governor has proposed. 

“That is, all things considered, a very modest increase,” Kenney said. “That investment in the Environment Department — $3.7 million — will definitely save lives [and] protect public health and the environment.” 

In all, the agency’s revenue last year was $90.7 million, counting grants and fees collected.  

The Legislative Finance Committee recommended keeping the agency’s general fund allocations the same as last year’s, which Kenney argued was not enough to provide effective oversight.  

Kenney said the requested funding increase is the difference between the agency being able to investigate workplace complaints and deaths and leaving those incidents unchecked. 

Probing workplace violations through the state office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is imperative in New Mexico, where worker deaths are 77 percent higher than the national average, Kenney told the committee. 

The agency’s budget was cut by 42 percent in the last three years that former Gov. Susana Martinez was in office, Kenney said. It has regained about 22 percent of its spending but is still operating at a lower funding level than it requires, he said. 

The agency has a vacancy rate of 17.7 percent, which adds up to 63 jobs that should be filled, Kenney said. 

None of the committee members spoke against the requested increase. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, expressed strong support, saying the agency’s mission should be a priority in New Mexico. 

The committee is considering hefty increases in spending on economic development and tourism, he said. 

“And those are great things, but I would hope we’d all agree that environmental protection and protecting public health are at least equally important,” Steinborn said. 

Subpar environmental oversight can hurt economic development because companies don’t want to locate in places that are unhealthy and unsafe, he added. The proposed budget includes a $1.7 million for rapid responses to workplaces where one or more employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Good trends with COVID-19 in NM lead state to ease a few more restrictions

The governor and officials said there continued to be good news on the state’s COVID-19 response, as it continues to meet most gating criteria. Because of this, New Mexico will allow some youth sports practices to go forward as the state continues to slowly lift restrictions throughout the state beginning Friday. The state will also allow camping at state parks, for New Mexico residents, at the beginning of October. In both cases, the prohibition on gatherings of more than ten people stays in place. And in the case of youth sports, there will be no competitive games or contact allowed.

Public health order extended as state focuses on aid

The state of New Mexico will extend its public health order with very little changes to the current  one, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Thursday. The state will still limit capacity at many locations, like places of worship and retail stores, and not allow indoor dining at restaurants, while keeping movie theaters closed and not allowing mass gatherings. Additionally, the state will still require all New Mexicans to wear face masks while in public. While the 14-day quarantine requirement for all travelers from other states remains in place, the governor said there would be some changes for those on necessary business and medical travel, likely announced on Friday. The public health order will also move wineries and distilleries into the same category as restaurants and breweries, which will allow them to serve customers outdoors, including on patios.

A ‘pause’ on in-person K-12 teaching until at least Labor Day

Amid an increase in COVID-19 cases in New Mexico and region-wide that hit a record-high for single-day cases in New Mexico Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that schools will not begin in-person instruction until at least Labor Day. “This pause on in-person reentry is not the same as delaying education support,” Lujan Grisham said. School districts will be able to work with a remote-learning, or an online-only model, until at least Labor Day. And during that time, the state Public Education Department encouraged districts to aid students in supplies for online learning and provide additional professional development for teachers. The state’s goal is to phase-in some in-person learning, using a hybrid model with some in-person instruction and the rest as remote learning, after Labor Day.

State suspends permits of restaurants that defied public health

The state suspended the food service permits for two restaurants that defied the state’s public health order and allowed dine-in service. The state Environment Department made the announced Friday afternoon. The two restaurants are Jalisco Cafe in Silver City and Anaheim Jacks in Ruidoso. The department cited a portion of the Food Service and Sanitation Act that states, the department can suspend a license if “conditions within a food service establishment present a substantial danger of illness, serious physical harm or death to consumers who might patronize the food service establishment.”

The restaurants can appeal the decision. If the restaurants continue to serve food, the department warned that they could legally pursue civil penalties in state district court of $500 per person.

Wastewater, wastewater everywhere: In the Permian Basin, a new kind of boom

CARLSBAD — In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water. 

“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. 

Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin.

Amigos Bravos

Group says it will sue EPA over stormwater pollution in Los Alamos

A Taos-based water conservation group has been waiting for the EPA to make a decision about a stormwater permit for over five years, while pollution coming from urban stormwater runoff in Los Alamos County, the group alleges, continues to threaten water quality standards. Amigos Bravos wants a final determination from the EPA in response to a petition it filed with the agency back in 2014. “It’s been 1,833 days since we petitioned,” Rachel Conn, projects director at Amigos Bravos, said in an interview. “Under the regulations, they are supposed to respond within 180 days. So, we are close to two thousand days overdue.”

In June, the organization filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA over the failure to act.