Enchanted with carbon caps


New Mexico is known for its stunning desert and mountain landscapes, vibrant mix of cultures and unique history. But this month the state is perched on the brink of becoming a leader in climate change regulation and plays a major role in moving the nation to a greener, stronger economy.

The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board began hearings on an innovative proposal from New Energy Economy, an environmental non-profit. The proposal requires major carbon emitters, such as the oil and gas industry and electric utilities, to reduce emissions by 3 percent below a 2010 baseline each year. Unlike the confusing thousand-page cap and trade regulations under consideration at the federal level, and already in place in some states, our five-page proposal [PDF] focuses on immediately reducing emissions.

Initiating a carbon cap regulation in advance of any federal laws is a critical opportunity for not just New Mexico, but all western states. Sooner or later, whether through congressional action or through EPA Clean Air Act regulations, there will be rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions. States getting an early jump on emissions reductions may qualify for early reduction credits in these future policies. And setting the curve on innovative carbon reduction strategies will give New Mexico businesses a competitive edge. It will make our state a prime location for other states to purchase offsets for their own emissions. By regulating carbon now, we encourage New Mexico’s businesses to find the simple emissions reduction strategies -- like increasing energy efficiency -- while making long term plans for more substantial emissions reductions that will serve them well under future federal regulations.

Critically, climate science suggests that Western states, especially New Mexico, will face major consequences from global climate change. Less snow, earlier snow melt, bigger and more frequent flash floods, and summer droughts are all on the horizon. Climate change will also shift fragile mountain ecosystems to higher elevations, straining conditions for both wildlife and farmers. Between water shortages and shifting climatic patterns, New Mexico’s outdoor recreation and agricultural industries will face significant challenges.
Climate change is obviously a global issue, and New Mexico reducing its emissions by 3 percent a year, although helpful, won’t completely ‘solve the problem’ or entirely ‘stop global warming.’ However it is a simple and achievable plan. [PDF] If New Mexico adopted such an innovative policy, it would set a precedent that could be followed by other Western states, perhaps even catalyzing federal legislative or administrative action to restrict carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, when California adopted AB 1493 in 2002, setting tougher emissions standards for cars sold in California after 2009, it prompted 16 other states, including New Mexico, to consider similar regulations, and with U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2007, it opened the door for federal regulations to limit motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

Another factor adding urgency to New Mexico taking action is the fact that other parts of the country have already begun regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Ten Northeastern states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gases Initiative in 2003, which creates an emissions trading market, and commits the member states to reducing carbon emissions from power plants to 10 percent below a 2008 baseline by 2018. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California signed a bill in 2006 to create a trading market that will come online in 2012 in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

With other regions already enacting measures that commit to reducing carbon emissions, it becomes not only economically and scientifically wise, but politically and ethically necessary to start reducing our own emissions now. This proposal would not only get New Mexico started in reducing emissions immediately, but would assist in boosting the local economy by attracting renewable energy to the state in order to provide a market for carbon offsets. In addition, this proposal wouldn’t preclude or prevent any future cap and trade legislation at the state, regional, or federal level, because it contains a sunset clause to phase out its requirements should a new national or regional program be adopted. When that happens, and if New Mexico adopts our proposed regulation, the state will be ahead of game and strategically placed to lead.

While state regulations will certainly not be as effective as comprehensive federal regulations at combating global climate change, all jurisdictions have an obligation to proportionally reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. New Mexico can demonstrate its commitment to its farmers, snow-based industries and protect its clean water sources for all of its citizens by taking action to confront a looming threat.

It’s time to stop being a spectator on the sidelines of the federal legislative process. It’s our job to do what we can to ensure that New Mexico and our counterparts throughout the West enact regulations that will protect our people and resources, and stimulate our economies. The power to limit carbon emissions is in our hands, and every state needs to contribute a solution to the greatest challenge facing our society today.

Bruce Frederick is a Staff Attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and is lead counsel on the proposed cap on greenhouse gases currently in front of the NM Environmental Improvement Board. He worked as a hydrologist before becoming a lawyer, and is lead attorney on water quality and water quantity cases, as well as other General Community Representation Program cases.