New Mexico Republicans line up against environmental bills

In committee hearings, Republicans echo industry concerns and muddle the intent of legislation

By: - February 4, 2022 7:15 am

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe, December 2021. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Saturday was a big day for environmental issues at the New Mexico Legislature. The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee had two game-changing bills on their debate plate: HJR2, the Environmental Rights Act, which would amend the state constitution to make a clean and healthy environment a constitutional right, with the state serving as trustee to those natural resources; and HB6, the Clean Future Act, which would codify Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s statewide carbon reduction pledges and create a carbon tax to fund and enforce the reduction goals.

If passed, both bills would profoundly shift how the state legally views its natural resources and how it cuts greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors across the board. That would be a remarkable pivot for the No. 2 oil producing state in the country.

One might expect quick debates over Democratic-sponsored legislation in a Democratic state with a Democratic Legislature and a Democratic governor.

Not so. Instead, pro-oil and gas representatives insisted on grandstanding and delaying legislation — if only by hours — that affects the climate.

After arguments tipped past the seventh hour, the committee’s head begged his Republican counterparts for brevity “in the interest of humanity.” Nevertheless, they persisted.

The end result: the Environmental Rights Act died and the Clean Future Act passed to the full House for further debate.

Saturday’s extravaganza took on extra significance following the spectacular tanking of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature Hydrogen Hub Development Act in the same committee at the end of January. She had touted the bill as an environmental and economic revolution for the state, while it was widely panned by environmental groups and then tabled after both Republicans and Democrats voted against it.

When it came to the Environmental Rights Act, proponents and opponents fell along common fault lines, as did the arguments, with environmental groups and many individuals in favor of it, and industry and business groups against. A poll of approximately 300 people who logged in to watch the committee meeting ran 79% in favor of the measure.

Aimee Barabe, chief lobbyist for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), the state’s largest oil and gas trade group, unsurprisingly testified against the Environmental Rights Act. But her main argument was an appeal to legislators, not petroleum producers. She claimed the bill would strip the Legislature of its power and give it to the judicial branch.

NMOGA takes in upwards of $3 million a year for lobbying and advertising on behalf of oil and gas development in the state, only a fraction of which shows up in state lobbying records. But those few records show donations to elected officials on both sides of the legislative aisle – including Democrat Rep. Meredith Dixon, who is on the committee.

More than three hours of long, unhappy comments by legislators followed. Republican Rod Montoya, a representative from Farmington in the middle of the natural-gas-producing San Juan Basin, went through a string of speculative arguments about the threat of “drive-by lawsuits” against the state by people intent on stymying business.

Montoya has run unopposed in three elections since he first won office against a poorly funded Democrat in 2014. Nonetheless, he has received nearly $190,000 in campaign contributions in that time, nearly half of which comes from oil and gas or utilities, the biggest businesses in his district.

His arguments eventually prompted committee chairman McQueen to tell him, “We’re not going to be able to run through every hypothetical.” And Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, the Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the joint legislation, defended it in Saturday’s hearing, saying, “That parade of horribles has not occurred in Montana or Pennsylvania (or) New York,” the three states with similar laws.

Despite strong public support for the bill, the other three Republicans on the committee, Reps. Larry Scott, James Townsend and James Strickler — all of whom work in or retired from the oil and gas industry — repeated Barabe’s and Montoya’s long string of hypothetical horribles.

More than three and a half hours after the start of the meeting, a vote to table the bill tied. “Unfortunately, that’s bill limbo,” McQueen said, and the bill essentially died.

The second measure, the Clean Future Act, would codify Gov. Lujan Grisham’s call for steep cuts in CO2 emissions.

Sponsored by House Speaker Brian Egolf, Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart and Rep. Nathan Small, among others, it sets timelines and goals for a reduction to 50% of the 2005 statewide CO2 emission levels by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2050.

The Clean Future Act would empower the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to enforce and implement a carbon tax scheme and set up an offset or emission reduction credit marketplace for polluters.

While not specifically named in the legislation, the oil and gas industry, responsible for 53% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions, would be directly affected by it. If the act passes, emissions would have to drop by half in the next eight years.

Opening comments from the public showed unlikely agreement between the state’s biggest industry and business lobbyists and youth and Native environmental activists, though for utterly different reasons.

Oil and gas lobbyists view the bill as yet another tax on their operations. Some activists worry emission offset credits will allow industry to buy their way out of cutting pollution.

Julia Bernal, director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, opposes a “carbon price which commodifies our Father Sky” and asked, “Where do Indigenous people fit into the settlers’ market system?”

Bernal and others said tribal communities were not consulted in writing the act and that Indigenous voices had been sidelined.

Many others dinged the bill for not going fast enough in light of the growing climate crisis and demanded that its deadlines be sped up by several years. Much of the action within the act wouldn’t begin until 2025.

Again, Montoya, the San Juan Basin Republican, spoke against the bill.

Again, he offered long, hypothetical arguments, often seemingly made up on the fly. “It’s just a quick Google; I don’t know if it’s accurate,” Montoya said at one point when questioning Small, who defended the bill in the hearing.

He also brought up dinosaur and cattle flatulence in an argument that prompted Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, to tweet, “I have no idea WTF he’s saying.”

More than seven and a half hours after the start of the committee hearing, the Clean Future Act passed. The bill now heads to the full House, where the debate will likely be equally long.

This story was originally published by Capital & Main. It is republished here with permission.

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Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main
Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main

Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions, as well as at home in the US. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.