New Mexico counties want say over hard-rock mining proposal on federal land

The kids called the heaps of waste rock from a shuttered mine “the moon,” and the bare mounds of yellow mill tailings “Egypt.”

“We played there. We loved it,” recalled San Miguel County Commissioner Janice Varela. “We didn’t know.”

Growing up on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, she said, they lived with a world of mountains, rivers, and canyons at their disposal. That world just happened to include the geologic oddities of an old lead and zinc mine, mill buildings and tailings piles. People would load up the back of a pickup truck and haul the waste rock away for use around their homes, including Varela’s ex-husband, who applied it to their driveway.

Oil and gas had little to fear during legislative session

Storage facilities in the Permian Basin. Photo by Elizabeth Miller. Stepping to the microphone at a press conference wrapping up this year’s legislative session, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, hammered the podium to the drum beat for Queen’s “We Will Rock You” before declaring it the “best, most productive” legislative session in state history. He proclaimed major achievements in education funding, criminal justice reform, a path for carbon-free electricity — and a bill that would save 100,000 acre feet of water each year from use in oil fields. “The produced water bill, I think, is going to go down as one of the greatest environmental accomplishments to come out of the state legislature of New Mexico,” Egolf said.

NM lawmakers go big on renewables, handle oil, gas with kid gloves

It was a mixed session for people who care about climate change and its effects. The state secured some large-scale wins, but failed to advance measures that would diversify the electrical grid and support individual households in reducing their own carbon footprint. And while measures to hold oil and gas companies accountable for violations of the Oil and Gas Act passed, there was little appetite among lawmakers for drawing more royalty money from an industry responsible for a billion dollar surplus this year. The flagship win for Democrats was the Energy Transition Act, SB 489, which commits the state to 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050. That bill schedules a payment plan for closing the San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that supplies Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM).

Renewable power plan aka ‘Energy Transition Act’ heads to governor

Solar panels at PNM’s Santa Fe Solar Center. It went online in 2015 and produces 9.5 megawatts, enough energy to power 3,850 average homes. New Mexico’s lawmakers have approved the Energy Transition Act, SB 489, committing the state to transitioning to 80 percent renewable power by 2040. The act also helps Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) with the costs of closing the San Juan Generating Station. It  directs $30 million toward the clean-up of the coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplies it and $40 million toward economic diversification efforts in that corner of the state and support for affected power plant employees and miners.

Lawmakers get another chance on methane regulations

Thermal image of emissions that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Credit: Sharon Wilson, Certified Thermographer, Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project. Reducing methane emissions from the state’s oil and gas industry was among the promises Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham made in her campaign, reiterated in her state-of-the-state speech in January and then acted on in an executive order. The order cites leaked, vented, and flared natural gas, the primary component of methane, as costing the state $244 million a year, and directs  state agencies to develop a regulatory framework for those reductions from both new and existing sources. Methane, often released from oil and gas development, ranks among the most potent greenhouse gases, with a short-term warming potential that far exceeds that of carbon dioxide.