Fire Season and Climate Change (VIDEO)

Fire season is upon us with serious outbreaks throughout New Mexico and Colorado. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose homes have either been consumed or are currently endangered. And a huge shoutout to the brave and tireless firefighters.

Taking the longer view, Sarah Kennedy offered these thoughts last week about the relationship of increased fire danger and climate change:

Protests and dissent as EIB looks at rolling back environmental protections

By Matthew Reichbach

As the Environmental Improvement Board looks at rolling back environmental rules instituted under former Governor Bill Richardson, protesters from the Occupy Movement and environmental groups have made their voices heard opposing the changes.

The existing environmental rules that the Martinez-appointed board is considering repealing relate to carbon dioxide emissions. Industry groups including Public Service Company of New Mexico (also known as PNM) and the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, back the repeal of the rules.

Occupy Santa Fe attended the hearing and used a “mic check” to have their voices heard.

During the “mic check,” which involves a large group repeating what one person says to amplify the speech without using megaphones, the Occupy protesters talked about concerns with coal-fired power plants.

“Coal burning electricity causes cancer, asthma, neurological disorders and lung disease,” the protesters said. “Elders and children are most at risk.”

David Van Winkle, Energy Chair for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, testified at the meeting and urged the EIB to not to roll back the environmental protections.

“The existing fleet of fossil fuel based electricity energy sources, specifically coal-fired power plants like the San Juan Generating Station produce significant air pollution,” Van Winkle told the EIB according to a transcript sent by the Sierra Club. “While pollution reduction improvements have been realized at San Juan due to the 2005 Consent Decree actions, carbon and nitrogen oxide pollution continue at high levels.”

Van Winkle urged renewable resources, including solar and wind, as well as energy efficiency as better ways to “serve [the] energy needs” of New Mexico.

A study by New Energy Economy, an environmental organization, found that, “Far from being costly for consumers and the New Mexico economy, we find that the compliance scenario creates jobs and saves money for electricity consumers while reducing greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions in New Mexico. In our estimation, implementing such a compliance scenario would help to mitigate future increases in electricity bills in New Mexico.”

Industry groups say that complying with the new environmental rules would significantly increase the cost of electricity in New Mexico and that cost would be passed on to consumers.

Interim Watch: Uranium Industry Makes Big Pitch to Resume NM Mining Operations

By Charlotte Chinana

As state officials look for ways to stimulate New Mexico’s economy and create more jobs, supporters of efforts to restart uranium mining operations in the state were handed a stage to make their pitch to legislators at this week’s meeting of the Economic and Rural Development Interim Committee in Grants.

And according to a panel devoted to the subject, prospects for the industry couldn’t be rosier as their key following talking points did attest:

  • New Mexico’s uranium reserves are among the richest in the nation – 2nd only to Wyoming;
  • The nuclear energy industry’s safety record is the “Best of any industry in the history of the world;” and
  • “The future is fairly optimistic for uranium (mining) in New Mexico”

New Mexico’s uranium rich reserves

According to the industry speakers, New Mexico has one of the richest uranium deposits in the United States, which “creates a lucrative opportunity to resume mining operations,” projected to “create thousands of jobs.”

“The world demand for uranium would double if the proposed nuclear reactors are built,” said Barbara Brazil, Deputy Secretary of the state’s Economic Development Department. According to estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are currently 440 operational reactors in the world – 104 of which are located across the United States.

“The U.S. consumes 20% of the world’s energy,” added John Bemis, Secretary-designee of the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. “This is the world as we know it today…everybody needs to remember that we need uranium to fuel those nuclear plants.”

Not addressed in any detail were a couple of none too rosy “economic opportunity caveats”:

  • Industry estimates that the state’s uranium reserves will be worth approximately $31 billion dollars are based on economic assumptions that the price per pound of uranium would hold steady at $90 to $100 per pound over a 30 year period. However, a more likely scenario is that the price will fluctuate.  The laws of supply and demand can be a pesky critters. For example, in 2000 the price per pound of uranium was $6 – and as of July 25 of this year, the uranium price per pound was $51.50.
  • Metal mining in the state doesn’t have the best track record in terms of economic stability. According to a 2008 report prepared for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, the state has been through many copper mining boom and bust cycles, as well as one previous uranium boom and bust cycle (circa 1948 – early 1980s).

Also, another hardly insignificant issue touched on with regard to NM’s uranium reserves was the potential jurisdictional issues that can arise. Some of “the state’s” uranium deposits are located on Indigenous lands.

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Groups to take Martinez administration to court over building code rollback

By Matthew Reichbach

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center announced Monday that a group including small businesses and energy efficiency groups are challenging the rollback of energy conservation building codes.

The action comes a month after the State Construction Industries Commission voted 7-1 to roll back the energy efficiency building codes.

Clearly New Mexico reported on the June 10 vote to roll back the energy efficiency building codes to the levels that they were at in 2009, the lowest possible to still receive funding from the Department of Energy.

“The Construction Industries Commission and the Construction Industries Division appear to have taken this action despite the absence of evidence supporting repeal of the energy conservation codes” said NMELC attorney and Executive Director Douglas Meiklejohn in a statement Monday. “We hope that the Court of Appeals will determine that decisions such as these must be supported by evidence in the record.”

One bone of contention is the process used to vote on the building codes.

Shrayas Jatkar of the Sierra Club New Mexico said in the public comment portion of the Construction Industries Commission meeting last month that there was a “stark difference” between the process used to roll back the building codes and the process that led to the building codes changes in December of 2010.

“It took 14 months to develop the code last time around and there were open meetings,” Jatkar told Clearly New Mexico in a short interview. The decision to roll back the energy efficiency building codes happened six months after Susana Martinez took office and replaced members of the commission.

The appeals were, according to a press release by NMELC, filed by NMELC “for Environment New Mexico, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Sundancer Creations Custom Builders, LLC, eSolved, Inc., and several individuals who supported the adoption of the codes promulgated in 2010.”

The codes would reduce energy use by about 20 percent.

Martinez’s administration said the codes were too costly for builders to implement and that would be passed on to property owners. The lawsuit says there is no evidence supporting the action that the Construction Industries Commission took.

“The Construction Industries Commission and the Construction Industries Division appear to have taken this action despite the absence of evidence supporting repeal of the energy conservation codes” said Douglas Meiklejohn, NMELC attorney and Executive Director, in a statement. “We hope that the Court of Appeals will determine that decisions such as these must be supported by evidence in the record.”

Interim Leg Watch: Energy Industry Wants Less Regulations, More Incentives

By Charlotte Chinana

“You’re preaching to the choir…we need to put people back to work – we need to put people back in [the] uranium mines.”

~ Sen. David Ulibarri (D – Grants) commenting on (while simultaneously commending) presentations from representatives from the mining, oil and gas industries in NM.

The interim Economic and Rural Development Committee recently held their July meetings (in Tucumcari and Santa Rosa), and I had the opportunity to take a little “legislative road trip” to sit in on a couple of agenda items – namely the “Energy Panel: Update on Projects, Tax Incentives and Laws and Regulations That Are Helping or Hurting Industry,” and the “Oil and Gas Energy Report.”

During the committee hearing, industry panelists took a moment to mention what their companies have done and/or will do for New Mexico – with regards to the number of jobs created and payments made to the state (by way of taxes, fees and royalties); they also spent the bulk of their presentations outlining what the state can (additionally) do for industry – specifically related to relaxing (if not entirely eliminating) regulations, while providing more incentives to do business in the state.

The Energy Panel Updates

Representatives from two of the state’s utility providers, Xcel Energy (an electric and natural gas company that operates in eight states – including NM), and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association (a wholesale electric power producer/supplier that serves 44 rural electric cooperatives and public power districts in four states – with 12 in NM), spoke extensively about the reliability of service provided by their companies, as well as the importance of cost containment measures.

While each highlighted the need to keep and utilize a diverse energy portfolio, it was stressed that the companies pretty much only added solar and wind, because they were mandated to do it.

Sonia Phillips, the NM State Affairs Manager from Xcel Energy, noted the cost difference in terms of solar production, using the example that it costs her company about 13 cents to generate a kilowatt of solar, vs. 2 or 3 cents to generate that same kilowatt – using coal. Phillips also said that some “basic, good incentives” would be nice which, according to a handout from her company, would include:

  • Expedited permitting;
  • Transmission cost recovery riders;
  • Clean energy improvement riders; and
  • Less regulatory lag (as regulatory lag increases investment risk)

Sen. Clinton Harden (R – Clovis) asked if NM’s current electricity demands were being met, to which Phillips replied “yes,” and elaborated that utility companies in the state are meeting the demand “92% of the time.”

Phillips then when on to mention that her company has “customers who want power when they want it” – as part of a pitch for an investment in infrastructure modifications to the power grid/s that the state uses (which were built in the 70s), and that “customers have been able to enjoy low rates for over 35 years” – related to possible, future rate increases.

Rhonda Mitchell, from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, added that her company was doing what it can to educate their co-op members about the rising cost of energy production and transmission (i.e. why customers can expect to pay more), though it was unclear as to whether or not said education equally emphasizes energy conservation.

As for the reliability factor, she added that:  “Sometimes, we do too good of a job in being reliable … people [can] take it for granted.”

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Navajo Nation Public Hearing on Energy Policy

By Anthony Fleg, Native Health Initiative

The location for last night’s public hearing on the Navajo Nation’s proposed energy policy was fitting for political theatrics – held at the UNM Student Union Building’s theater, the stage was set for Navajo Nation officials to make their case for the energy policy as currently drafted.

The document at the center of discussion was the draft of the Navajo Nation Energy Policy, completed June 20th, 2011 (see copy of draft here). The UNM meeting was the last of the public hearings on the policy, meetings meant to gather public input on the draft.

The Attorney General for the Navajo Nation, Harrison Tsosie, reminded the audience that this document was not a law, regulation or statute. “Instead, this policy is to serve as a vision statement for Navajo leaders and for the outside world, to then guide future decisions and laws and to ensure that in the future the Federal Government is not deciding the direction of our Dine’ people.”

There have been four prior attempts to develop such an energy policy by the Navajo Nation, with the only document that made it past draft stage being the 1980 policy. The current administration, under President Ben Shelly has made energy policy a priority.

The document supports development of renewable energy, with Navajo Nation officials admitting that in the past years there has been no clear direction, and therefore, no significant strides in this realm.

Coal and uranium appear to be the biggest points of contention in the draft policy, judging from the audience members who spoke during the public response section of the hearing.

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Commission votes to roll back energy efficiency building codes

By Matthew Reichbach

The New Mexico Construction Industries Commission voted to roll back energy efficiency standards in building codes Friday afternoon. The 7-1 vote came after a lengthy executive session.

The vote rolls back energy efficient building codes after a short process. There were four options for public comment on the new changes in four cities on one day throughout the state. The vote was in the first meeting of the commission since it was largely replaced by members selected by Gov. Susana Martinez.

The codes that the commission voted to end were the result of more than a year of work, including public comment, under the Bill Richardson administration.

Builders were split on the idea of whether or not to back the changes to the building codes, the Associated Press reported earlier this month.

New Mexico Home Builders Association CEO Jack Milarch said he supported a repeal of the codes.

Meanwhile, Kim Shanahan, executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, said changing the rules now would only require more stringent measures as a catch-up down the road

Commissioner Patrick Casey of Silver City was the lone commissioner to vote against the codes.

The code rolls back building codes to the lowest possible for New Mexico to receive stimulus funds from the Department of Energy. These are the codes that were in place in 2009.

The decision to roll back the energy efficiency codes came from Gov. Susana Martinez’s Small Business Task Force which Clearly New Mexico found “dominated by long-time lobbyists for large corporations” and not small business owners.

This seemingly comes from a recommendation in the midpoint of the Small Business Task Force to “bring compliance back down to the levels of international code.”

The energy efficiency code rollback was introduced by Kevin Yearout who sat on the task force. Yearout and his wife each donated $5,000 to Martinez’s campaign and Yearout Mechanical donated an additional $10,000 to her successful gubernatorial campaign.

The commission is filled with almost completely different members from when Richardson was in office. Dale Dekker, an Albuquerque architect, was the only member of the commission who is a holdover from Richardson’s administration. Dekker donated $500 to Martinez’s campaign.

Public comment was limited to two minutes per person and five minutes per commenter.

J. Dee Dennis Jr., Regulation and Licensing Department Superintendent appointed by Martinez, supported the change. He also served on Martinez’s Small Business Task Froce

Shrayas Jatkar of the Sierra Club New Mexico said there was a “stark difference” from the process last year to this year. He criticized the commission for not discussing the changes before voting.

“It took 14 months to develop the code last time around and there were open meetings,” Jatkar told Clearly New Mexico in a short interview.

“This time there was no reading of the number of public comments registered,” Jatkar said, whereas last time the codes were changed they read out loud how many people supported the changes to the codes and how many opposed the changes.

“This is how public policy in New Mexico is being developed at this point in the new administration,” he said, “without any actual thoughtful consideration of public input.”

Chairman Baker briefly made comments before the vote on how difficult the decision was for the commission.

“We’ve had some discussion of trying to figure out exactly what the best decision is for the New Mexico code,” Baker said and noted that the changes will “long outlast us.”

When Richardson moved to strengthen the energy efficiency codes it took 14 months and involved a committee that had a number of builders, including representatives for the New Mexico Home Builders Association.

Executive sessions are used when discussing sensitive matters and the public is cleared from the room. The executive session lasted more than two hours during Friday’s meeting and caused about one-third of the 60 or so attendees to leave.

a drought for the record books, or a drought for the ages?

By Walker Boyd

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported today that

Albuquerque and Roswell are on pace for their driest years on record, mirroring conditions across New Mexico that have bolstered large wildfires, hurt crops and forced ranchers to sell livestock they can’t afford to feed.

Rain has been scarce throughout most of New Mexico, and weather records from Albuquerque and Roswell offer this stark example: The cities have not been this dry during the first five months of a year since 1892, when the state began keeping track.

With wildfires raging all over New Mexico (Emanuele, the mayordomo from last week’s post, sent me an e-mail saying that a fire just over the hill from his house is threatening the valley), it seems all the more important to New Mexicans that we find out whether we are in for a brutal and prolonged drought or whether this is something merely temporary and cyclical. Well, the answer (as with most things), really depends on your perspective. According to the New Mexican article, an University of Arizona study that concludes droughts like this are part of 50-year cycles.

But what if we look on the long run? Clearly friend Elaine Hebard sent along the following graph, which is based on tree-ring analysis conducted by Henri Grissino-Mayer:

Sin of Emission on Earth Day – Good Friday Edition

In celebration of Earth Day 2011, here’s a story courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council:

For Earth Day, Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute posted this shocker:  “Energy Fact of the Week: Sulfur Dioxide Emissions from Coal Have Declined 54 Percent.”  He includes some nice government charts…

But from Hayward’s blog, you’d think this happened by itself!

The chief causes of this decline are technology—cost-effective “scrubbers” to remove sulfur dioxide from the waste stream—and resource substitution: we started using much more low-sulfur coal from the western United States.

No mention of the Clean Air Act’s acid rain program – the limits on sulfur dioxide emissions established in the 1990 Clean Air Act.  Without the Clean Air Act’s pollution limits, this scrubber technology and switch to lower-sulfur coal would never have happened.  Why install pollution controls or use cleaner fuels if you can dump all your pollution in the atmosphere for free?

Sounds like the corporate hacks at AEI are more adept at scrubbing history than scrubbing emissions. Wouldn’t want to let actual facts get in the way of the prime narrative denying government’s necessary role in protecting public health and enforcing the rules of the road for free market capitalism in all its majesty.

It’s about “promoting the general welfare” for those of us with a constitutional bent.

All of which reminds us of a light bulb joke, free market fundamentalist edition.

Question:  “How many free market economists does it take to change a light bulb?”

Answer:  “None. They wait for the invisible hand to do it.”

And in related news, check out today’s excellent post on DFNM:

Four Corners Power Plan Leads Nation in Smog-forming Pollution

Happy Earth Day, y’all.