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New Mexico caps again

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Cally Carswell | Dec 13, 2010 11:30 AM

A New Mexico regulatory board took another stand against climate change last week, approving its second set of greenhouse gas rules in just over a month. The first round, OK'd by the state's Environmental Improvement Board in November, laid the groundwork for New Mexico's participation in the Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program, and require major polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent a year starting in 2012. The second rule will cap (no trading involved) carbon dioxide emissions from the state's big polluters and require 3 percent cuts each year starting in 2013. It's a back-up plan, of sorts, to the regional initiative. If that program moves ahead as planned, the state-only rule will sunset. If not, New Mexico polluters will still have to cut their carbon spewage.

That is, if either rule holds up. Legal wrangling over the state cap began a couple years ago. After New Energy Economy, a clean energy group, proposed the rule in 2008, a hodgepodge coalition -- state legislators, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Commission, Dairy Producers of New Mexico, Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state's largest utility, and others -- filed a lawsuit to stop the Environmental Improvement Board from considering it, contending the board didn't have the authority. A Lea County judge agreed, but was overturned this summer by the state Supreme Court, allowing the board to move forward with hearings on the rule.

Now, efforts are underway to dismantle the rules. The city of Farmington, an oil and gas patch, announced this week that it will go to court over the cap-and-trade regulations. While there's been no official word on whether the second rule will land before a judge, it's likely to. There's also ample speculation that either the legislature or the new governor will take a stab at scratching them. According to a recent Santa Fe New Mexican editorial, "there are only slim hopes that the air-quality rules, so long in hammering out, will hold up."

Indeed, the new year will usher in a new era of environmental politics in New Mexico. Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who fancies himself an environmentalist, will be replaced by Republican Susana Martinez, who has openly questioned climate science. The current head of the state's Environment Department, Ron Curry, will be booted, as might the entire Environmental Improvement Board. Speculation is flying that Martinez appointees will put progressive Richardson-era policy -- New Mexico's leading-edge pit rule, designed to prevent wastewater from oil and gas operations from contaminating groundwater, for example -- on the chopping block.

Susana Martinez Headshot

Governor-elect Susana Martinez.

"One of the major things that (Richardson) has done is to support the Secretary of the Environment, Ron Curry," Doug Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center told me recently. "(Curry) has been a real leader on environmental and environmental justice issues at the state level. He has really put New Mexico at the forefront of protecting the environment, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities."

Among those accomplishments, Meiklejohn said, are an executive order requiring state agencies to evaluate the environmental justice impacts of their decisions, and the insertion of environmental justice provisions into solid waste management regulations. Curry's department has also won high praise for strictly regulating water pollution.

So what now? As the New Mexican sees it: "Eight years of energetic reform from Environment Secretary Ron Curry and some of his department's policy-setting boards face not only a screeching halt, but a shift into reverse as well." Martinez has already given some indication of where environmentalists and industry will fall in her administration's pecking order. She picked Pete Domenici Jr. to head up the search for the next Environment Secretary. A lawyer, Domenici represents a number of clients -- dairies, oil companies, Los Alamos National Lab -- involved in legal disputes with the Environment Department. Oilmen, a dairy exec, and a rep from the Los Alamos lab also serve on the search committee

Environmentalists aren't optimistic about the choices they and Martinez will make. John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, told the Associated Press, "I fear a scorched earth. I really do." 

Cally Carswell is High Country News' assistant editor.

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