New Mexico legislature fails IPCC test

Record-shattering budget from oil and gas fuels a spending spree on everything except regulating oil and gas

By: - March 29, 2023 4:01 am
The shadow of an oil jack is on a white metal building with red trim.

(Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

On March 18, the New Mexico Legislature wrapped up this year’s two-month session, one fueled by a whopping $9.57 billion budget heavily boosted by oil and gas revenues and lacking any new legislation regulating that industry. Two days later, the United Nations’ climate change authority released its latest report on the state of the planet’s response to the crisis. The AR6 Synthesis Report is a final warning to act before the shifting climate becomes unfixable. It also indirectly reflects and rebukes the legislative session’s near-complete failure to rein in the state’s biggest industry — one largely responsible for the planet’s quickening slide toward irreversible climate damage.

New Mexico’s oil and gas output isn’t solely to blame for the heating planet, but the state’s gargantuan production numbers (it’s the nation’s second-largest oil producing state and fifth-largest natural gas producer) coupled with its historic inability to police fossil fuel producers make the legislative inaction consequential beyond the state’s relatively small population and economy. “I did get several bills I really, really care about passed,” says Antoinette Sedillo López, a state senator. “None of them were for the environment.” That lack of legislative action has at least one group pondering legal action and a state agency planning to help.

Lawmakers approve $9.57 billion budget over a windy weekend

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is new, but its warnings are not really news to anyone paying attention. Years in the making, it gathers and synthesizes work from six earlier volumes to say that the opportunity to mitigate the worst effects of climate change is rapidly dwindling. The report plants a flag in the 2030s as the time when, without rapid, dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures will likely increase beyond 1.5 C and tip the climate into unknown territory. The IPCC report points out — again — that the slower the switch to renewable energy, the more costly it will be to live through and mitigate future climate change. It points out — again — that all new oil and gas production must stop immediately if there is to be any chance to keep inevitable damage to manageable levels. And it points out — again — that the stage is already set to see ever more climate-charged catastrophes like last year’s flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria, broiling heat in England or massive fires like those here in New Mexico. The report says, “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

Water companies want NM to reuse oil and gas byproduct, despite safety and environmental concerns

But all is not lost. The IPCC report “is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb. It is a survival guide for humanity,” says U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The report lays out — again — that the solutions to reduce carbon emissions already exist but also says, “Some future [climate] changes are unavoidable and/or irreversible but can be limited by deep, rapid and sustained global greenhouse gas emissions reduction.” Top among those reduction strategies: quickly ramping up the use of renewable energy sources while quickly ramping down the use of fossil fuels. 

But as the IPCC’s authors were preparing the report’s release, New Mexico’s legislators shot down multiple opportunities to tighten the state’s legal fences around oil and gas producers while still allowing new production. Efforts both large and small that would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the industry and protected public health and resources didn’t even get floor votes as they died in committee hearings. 

Stricter regulation on who can drill wells? Dead. A provision allowing citizen groups to sue when the state drags its feet over prosecuting oil and gas companies? Dead. A nominal increase in oil and gas taxes that applies only to future wells only on state lands? Dead. Updates to the state’s 80-year-old foundational oil and gas law to include protections for human and environmental health? Dead. A fund to help fossil-fuel energy workers transfer to new careers? Dead. The latest in a years-long push to add environmental protections to the state constitution, similar to one in red state Montana? Dead.

New Mexico does have a pair of powerful rules to keep methane and other pollutants from oil and gas production out of the air, and the session did increase money to the two historically underfunded agencies that enforce them. The Oil Conservation Division is the state’s primary enforcement agency, and Sidney Hill, the division’s public information officer, says, “The final budget lined up well with OCD’s request.” 

“That’s great, but it’s not enough,” says Tannis Fox, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) and an author on three bills that were shot down. “The methane rules are good, but it’s not enough,” she says. “Additional funding for [enforcement] is good, but it’s not enough.”

The New Mexico Environment Department enforces the state’s ozone precursor rule, which has lacked enforcement funding since its implementation one year ago. NMED did receive a bump in this year’s budget, but nearly all of it was used for state-mandated salary increases, according to department Secretary James Kenney. That left the agency — which monitors everything from water quality to septic tanks to gas stations — with a net budget increase of about $175,000, he says. 

“The Legislature has indicated multiple years in a row that they are not going to give us money,” Kenney says. “I’ve learned my lesson.” He plans to ask NMED’s controlling Environment Improvement Board to dramatically raise permitting fees on the oil and gas operations monitored by the ozone rule to pay for its enforcement. Even if the permit fee increase went lickety split, the funds wouldn’t be available to Kenney’s department until 2024 or later because fees go to the New Mexico general fund and the Legislature would have to appropriate the money back to NMED.

Enforcement of oil and gas regulations under threat in New Mexico legislature

Republican legislators representing districts in the state’s portion of the Permian Basin saw all of this as a win for the session. Historically, Republicans in New Mexico vote pro oil while Democrats vote pro environment. Yet these legislative deaths didn’t happen in a Republican-controlled government: New Mexico Democrats hold healthy majorities in both houses, as well as the governor’s office. “It was frustrating,” says Mona Blaber, communications director for the Rio Grande Chapterchapter of the Sierra Club. And what Republicans see as a win, WELC’s Fox says will simply increase lawsuits. “We have to double down in the courts,” she says.

Kenney says that NMED can help. He is working to put all of his department’s air pollution information quickly online so “the EPA, the Department of Justice and any NGO who can take action against these polluters [can] do so. So we’re going to put it all out there.”

Legislators likely weren’t expecting to see increased fees and lawsuits for oil and gas companies following this session. Sedillo López says worries over angering the industry kept many legislators from voting for climate bills or enforcement increases. “I do think there is a lot of fear about rocking the boat with all of the money we’re getting from oil and gas right now,” she says. Sedillo López, Blaber and Fox all see the volunteer, part-time state Legislature — the only one of its kind in the country — as a hindrance to big, reforming legislation. Its truncated nature gives extra clout to fossil fuel lobbyists who spend all year polishing arguments and funding election campaigns, Blaber says, plus, “It’s hard to accomplish everything that needs to get accomplished in 60 days every other year.” Next year’s session will run just 30 days and focus almost exclusively on the state budget.

“We made some progress during this session,” Blaber notes, “but we failed to meet the moment given the urgency of the crisis.” Bills creating a renewable energy office in the State Land Office and defining electric bikes passed and await Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature. A package of tax credits also promotes electric vehicles, energy storage and help for geothermal development. But, Blaber says, “We could have planned for the future better.” The IPCC report frames the idea a little differently, saying, “Global progress in mitigating climate change remains woefully off track.” 

“I hope that [IPCC report] resonates with the political leaders here in New Mexico,” Fox says.

Much of the damage to come will affect those least able to prevent it. New Mexico’s politicians did appropriate hundreds of millions to improve the state’s education systems and health care for vulnerable kids. The irony is that those healthier, better educated kids will spend ever greater portions of their adult lives dealing with a climate legislated into existence — or not — by their elders. 

This story originally appeared on 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.