No time to waste in the New Mexico legislature to safeguard health and the environment

UPDATE 16 March 2021.

Last week, New Mexico came a step closer to being able to better protect land, air, water, climate, and health. Senate Bill 8 passed the Senate 25-13 despite opposition from the oil and gas industry–whose legislative cheerleaders slowed its advancement through committees and even tried to stop a full vote with a maneuver requiring all Senators to be physically present.

Despite repeated, unsubstantiated claims that the bill would hurt New Mexico, drive business away, and even foster authoritarianism, the truth about SB-8 remains stronger. The bill would change just four words in two state laws (the Air Quality Control and Hazardous Waste Acts) to allow state and local officials to adopt protections more stringent than federal ones. 

In turn, officials could choose to create measures to reduce health-harming ozone, limit greenhouse gases, force polluters to clean up water supplies, and more. 

SB-8 is now headed to the House Judiciary committee hearing and then to the House for a full floor vote. With just a few days left to the legislative session, there’s no time for lawmakers to waste in protecting New Mexico’s communities and environment. 

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ORGINAL POST

Right now, New Mexico lawmakers have a golden opportunity to demonstrate how even simple actions can make a big difference in safeguarding health and the environment.

By removing just four words from two state laws, Senate Bill 8 would allow New Mexico to pursue more effective, protective policies than currently required by federal law. 

Untying the hands of New Mexico to protect residents

Striking out “no more stringent than” in the state’s Air Quality Control and Hazardous Waste Acts would affirm the authority of state and local officials to decide how to protect the health, safety, and environment of New Mexicans. For decades, New Mexico has hamstrung government officials at the state Environmental Improvement Board and local air quality boards; SB-8 would change that.

Federal environmental laws are a critical “floor” of protection for all Americans regardless of where they live. But they were never intended to hold states back from reaching a higher “ceiling.” They are also riddled with loopholes that exempt polluters from key provisions. 

Additional state measures would help reduce New Mexico’s ozone pollution, which causes respiratory, cardiovascular, and other health issues. This is not a theoretical problem for frontline communities living in polluted areas. Recently, the American Lung Association gave several counties in New Mexico low and failing grades for air quality–including Lea, Eddy, and San Juan counties, where oil and gas operations are intense and expanding.

The need for stronger rules for weakly regulated industry

Climate change is also very real in the Land of Enchantment, with heat, drought, wildfires, and water insecurity on the rise. Last fall, Governor Lujan Grisham released a revised 2020 Climate Report showing that greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas operations are four times higher than previously estimated. 

Stronger action is needed to control methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other pollutants released by the oil and gas industry and scientifically linked to health impacts such as headaches, nausea, neurological changes, and even reproductive abnormalities. But without SB-8, their actions will be limited to the basic provisions of federal law.

There is also a clear need for stronger state rules on oil and gas waste—as documented in Earthworks’ 2020 report on the hundreds of produced water spills caused by operators every year in New Mexico. State agencies need to adopt measures to reduce the harms to water, farmland, and health posed by hazardous waste containing toxic substances and metals like benzene, lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium.

New Mexico’s hands are also tied when it comes to safeguarding water supplies contaminated with PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), man-made chemicals that can harm the liver, kidney, and reproductive and immune systems. PFAS-contaminated water is known to be occurring upstream from several towns and the cities of Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. Yet without binding federal standards for PFAS levels in drinking water, the state can’t fully require polluters to clean up their dangerous mess.

The time for action is NOW

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that SB-8 easily passed two key state Senate committees (Conservation and Judiciary). At the time of writing, the bill is held up in a third–oddly, it’s the Finance Committee, even though a legislative analysis found that SB-8  has no fiscal impact

New Mexico’s short legislative sessions and environmental problems have one thing in common: they are both urgent with no time to waste. Fortunately, they both have a similar solution: swift action, including by passing forward-looking policies like SB-8.