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Fresh attacks on environmental regulations threaten New Mexico’s future

March 30, 2011, 1:00 am

Conservation Voters of New Mexico Executive Director Sandy Buffett believes the renewable sector will be responsible for many 21st century jobs.

From the start, Gov. Susana Martinez’s anti-environment agenda was clear. 

During her first days in office, Martinez terminated members of the Environmental Improvement Board, which had just approved in December a second new rule setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions. 

In fact, Martinez’ first executive order in office created a “small business-friendly task force” to review the state’s rules, and also suspended all the recent rules passed by the board. These rules included the greenhouse gas rule, as well as another recently passed rule to protect groundwater quality from the waste from industrial-sized dairies. (According to the New Mexico Environment Department’s own numbers, the groundwater beneath more than 65 percent of the state’s dairies has been contaminated by operations.)

Representing the nonprofit New Energy Economy, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center sued the governor—and the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the new governor violated the state constitution when she prevented the rules from being codified. 

Indeed, after eight years of Gov. Bill Richardson, the transformation within the state has been a shock. Richardson wasn’t perfect—he kept mum on uranium mining even when the Navajo opposed mining on their own lands, remained cozy with Public Service Company of New Mexico whenever it came to coal generation and did next-to-nothing to plan for the state’s water-restricted future. Richardson, however, did support regulations on the oil and gas industry, took steps toward cutting the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and worked with other states and provinces to create a regional cap-and-trade market for carbon.

“Elections have consequences,” Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters of New Mexico, says. 

And yet environmental and public health issues are not inherently political or partisan; everyone relies on clean water to drink and safe air to breathe.

“We take a lot of our existing environmental and public health safeguards for granted—we don’t expect to have to carry around a self-testing E coli kit when we go to a restaurant, or put a water sampling kit under our faucet when we go to get a glass of water,” she says. “We are counting on those vital services provided to us—and we count on that somebody is doing their job to make sure our health and safety is protected.”

When the administration punitively attacks the regulatory framework or the budget and staffing of those agencies, she says, it is consciously deciding to risk public health and safety. 

Doing so also jeopardizes the economy. 

For example, toward the end of the legislative session, Republican lawmakers mounted an attack on the state’s renewable portfolio standard. First passed in 2004, and strengthened in 2007, the law requires the state’s public utilities provide an increasing amount of energy from renewable sources to customers. Legislators also hoped to repeal the state’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases from industrial facilities. 

Such attacks don’t make long-term economic sense: 

“We can see in states that are already moving forward on carbon pollution regulation that, after those [controls] have gone into place, venture capital investment in the renewable sector has increased,” Buffett says. “New Mexico is poised with sun and wind and geothermal and biofuels—so this is where we’re going to be able to build 21st century jobs.” 

The economic consequences of not taking action on climate change also have been documented. Sandia National Laboratories, in a report released last May, estimates the mean average risk of damage to the US economy from climate change is $1 trillion over the next 40 years—with losses in employment equivalent to nearly seven million full-time jobs.

In New Mexico, inaction would cost between $17.9 billion and $26.1 billion in losses to the gross domestic product, and a loss of both jobs and population.

Of course, consequences exist beyond numbers, cash and jobs. New Mexico already is suffering the consequences of human-caused climate change (despite the assertions of Gov. Martinez’ first nominee to head the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, former astronaut Jack Schmitt).

 “We so often, in this discussion about caps and early credits and trading mechanisms, get lost in the fact that we’re talking about huge impacts on New Mexico, with increased drought and increased temperatures,” Buffett says. “I grew up here [in New Mexico], and I don’t ever remember an 80-degree temperature fluctuation in two weeks like we had in February in Santa Fe.” She points out that, during the state’s cold snap—and attendant gas-delivery crisis—temperatures went from -18 to 58 degrees in a remarkably short span.
“Climate disruption is happening,” she says, adding that some economists—including Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, are predicting it will be accompanied by a cataclysmic disruption to the economy.

“So why not innovate, be ready?”

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