« Return to this article

Know the West

New Mexico governor sucker-punches enviro regs


On January 1, 2011, New Mexico's new governor, Republican Susana Martinez, took office. Nine minutes into her first day, she got right down to business with executive order 2011-001 [PDF], the innocently-titled "Formation of a small business tax force," which not only created said task force but, more importantly, placed a 90-day hold on most proposed and pending regulations in the state, including two key environmental and public health regulations. Green groups had expected the governor -- who questions climate science and believes environmental and public health regulations stymie business -- to try to keep regulations she dislikes from moving forward, and this is her first move in the hold-up game.

One of the rules on hold required large polluters in the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The other changed how the state's enormous dairies were required to manage their potentially-poisonous manure. Nearly 60 percent of the state's dairies have polluted groundwater, and the new rules provided clear instructions to these enormous operations on how they should manage their manure to better protect groundwater, which serves as a drinking water source for most of the state's residents. These two rules, and about 20 others, all of which were pending publication in the state's register, will hang out in a sort of bureaucratic limbo while the Martinez-appointed task force spends three months evaluating them for their economic impact. It's unclear what will happen if the rules under examination are found to have negative impacts on business.

The dairy rules had wound their way through a multi-year process of stakeholder engagement, hearings, drafts, and revisions. The greenhouse gas rules had already withstood a challenge in the state Supreme Court and survived months of public hearing and comment. Both rules were finalized before the new governor took office, and, as of December 2010, citizens and state employees considered them all but law, merely awaiting publication in the state's register to take effect.

The governor's action sneakily short-circuited the rulemaking process. Even though enviros had anticipated the pushback, they believed Martinez would have to go through the same administrative process that stakeholders, including the dairy industry and businesses impacted by the greenhouse gas rules had gone through to create the regulations in the first place -- proposed rule changes, public comment, hearings, etc.

But Martinez knocked their expectations -- and these rules -- out with the executive order's quick sucker punch. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which has worked on both the greenhouse gas and the dairy regulations, believes her actions are illegal, and sued Martinez yesterday in an effort to compel her to publish the rules in the register.

 View Larger Map

Aerial view of manure lagoons at a New Mexico megadairy in Vado, near Las Cruces. The tiny dots are cows.

"Our view is that an effort like that to stop the regulations from going into effect is essentially an effort to repeal the regulations," said Douglas Meiklejohn, director of the NMELC.

Other groups involved in the dairy rule making, like the citizen group Amigos Bravos, based in Taos, and Caballo Concerned Citizens, near Hatch, have expressed concern about the hold-up.

"Every day without common sense regulations endangers our land and water and the public health," said Rachael Conn, policy director of Amigos Bravos.

Despite repeated requests for comment, the governor (who received $800,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, and $70,000 from dairy groups) and her staff have remained silent on the issue.

Admittedly, the governor is busy. She has a state budget to corral, global warming deniers to appoint to key energy and natural resource positions, environmental board members to fire, and a sorry-looking website to improve.

True, there are bound to be some wires crossed as the new executive officer settles in. But if the governor's going to come out swinging, she should be prepared to take responsibility for her actions -- and answer basic questions about potentially illegal executive orders that place her political priorities well before a public process.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

For further reading on the environment and politics in New Mexico, check out HCN contributor Laura Paskus's recent story, Politics trumps science again, this time in New Mexico.