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.

EIB Decision on Statewide Carbon Cap Coming Today

By Tracy Dingmann

The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board is expected to make its final decision sometime today (Dec. 6) on a proposal to reduce statewide carbon emissions.

If approved, the carbon emission rules would apply only to the state’s largest polluters, including power plants, refineries and natural gas processing hubs.

Approval of the proposal would kick-start an economic engine to bring jobs to New Mexico and to showcase the state as a national leader in the area of halting or slowing harmful climate change.

The proposal to reduce carbon pollution is the result of a petition from New Energy Economy (NEE), a New Mexico-based nonprofit organization, and 17 other organizations representing communities, businesses and rural interests.

“Our proposal is about unleashing investment that will drive innovation and create jobs for New Mexico families and communities while demonstrating national leadership,” said New Energy Economy president John Fogarty. “Clean energy is the next Industrial Revolution and we’re in a race to see who will lead that revolution. Let’s stake a claim and make New Mexico the beneficiary of the prosperity that’s there for the taking.”

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In Other News: NM’s Environmental Victory on Nov. 2

By Tracy Dingmann

On Nov. 2, an important environmental victory occurred that was almost – but not quite – eclipsed by Election Day news in New Mexico.

Perhaps those of you who worry about the specter of manmade climate change heard that the state Environmental Improvement Board met and approved a regional cap and trade program to cut carbon emissions in New Mexico.

The decision puts New Mexico in the forefront of the necessary movement to control carbon emissions, which scientists agree are the major cause of global warming.

In an interview with the New Mexico Business Weekly, Mariel Nanasi of the Santa Fe nonprofit New Energy Economy praised the EIB for approving the most comprehensive greenhouse gas emission reduction rules in the nation.

“It puts New Mexico ahead of the curve,” Nanasi said. “It offers opportunities for clean energy investment and development in the state, which translates into jobs, jobs, jobs.”

From the Business Weekly story on the ruling:

The decision will require about 63 facilities in New Mexico that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually to start cutting emissions by 2 percent per year below 2010 levels, beginning in 2012. The rule applies to stationary sources of emissions, rather than transportation or other sectors. In New Mexico, such stationary facilities mainly include coal- and gas-fired power plants, and oil and gas operations.

The EIB’s decision also authorizes New Mexico’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative, which includes a cap-and-trade program for affected industries. Under that system, businesses that lower emissions faster than required will receive credits that can be sold to industries in other WCI states. The credits could be used to help the slower-moving businesses comply.

Before approving the plan, which was designed and proposed by the New Mexico Environment Department, the board voted unanimously to adopt a cost-containment amendment. Under that clause, if the costs of adopting the rule reach $45 per ton of emissions, the Environment Department must come back to the board with additional cost consideration options, said Sandra Ely, the Department’s energy and environmental coordinator.

The board voted down two other amendments, including one that would have exempted the city of Farmington from the rule. “I’m really impressed with the thoughtfulness of the board–its consideration of industry’s concerns and the cost issues involved,” Ely said. “Each and every board member understood the importance of addressing climate change, but they split on how it should actually be addressed.”

In December, the EIB will meet to consider a carbon cap proposal brought forth by New Energy Economy. That proposal asks the state to implement a statewide cap – you can read more about it here.

It’s not known what the EIB will decide on the NEE proposal. But it’s clear that yesterday’s decision places New Mexico in a much-needed role as a leader in not just climate change awareness – but also in taking real action on climate change.

What New Mexicans Told The EIB About Capping Carbon Emissions

By Tracy Dingmann

Last week I attended hearings held by the Environmental Improvement Board on a carbon cap petition filed by the New Mexico group New Energy Economy and 16 other organizations, including faith-based groups, medical professionals, indigenous groups, rural industries and others.

You might have heard a little something about the NEE petition – it asks the state to set a cap on New Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions in order to encourage traditional energy companies to curb carbon pollution caused by oil and gas and focus more on developing alternative energy sources instead.

With the petition, New Mexico stands poised to become a national leader in renewable energy and manufacturing – not to mention a safer place and more healthy place for all of us to live and work and raise our families.

Oil and gas industry people, along with utilities, have vigorously opposed the measure, saying it would increase their cost of doing business and cause them to pass those increases along to their consumers.

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It’s Official: AG Approves Environmentalists on Environmental Improvement Board

By Tracy Dingmann

The New Mexico Attorney General’s office has determined that there is no conflict of interest among members of the Environmental Improvement Board who are currently considering two petitions on limiting carbon emissions. (Read “AG Office Finds No Conflict on EIB.”)

What does that mean in plain English? It means the state has just made clear that it’s okay for environmentalists to serve on the Environmental Improvement Board.

Sound silly? It is.

The only reason I’m even writing about this again is because last month, a group of New Mexico legislators – specifically, the GOP Caucus in the House of Representatives – sent a letter asking the state Attorney General to investigate whether specific EIB members have conflicts of interest that would preclude them from making objective decisions on the carbon cap petitions.

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Imagine That: Environmentalists on an Environmental Board

By Tracy Dingmann

Could we finally just put to rest the astounding notion that being an “environmentalist” should somehow disqualify you from being a member of the Environmental Improvement Board?

I ask this in wake of the Oct. 2 Journal story titled “ GOP wants `Green’ Partisans Off EIB.”  The story details efforts by some Republican legislators to force any EIB members with “known green agendas” to recuse themselves from deliberations on two proposals to cap carbon emissions that are currently before the EIB.

According to the story, the legislators want the Attorney General Gary King to investigate possible conflicts of interests that specific EIB members might have regarding the two proposals.

This is just the latest salvo in the epic battle over the makeup of the Environmental Improvement Board, an advisory board whose members are appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson.

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Reducing New Mexico’s Carbon Emissions = Economic Sense

Vicki Pozzebon, Executive Director, Santa Fe Alliance

A Guest Post by Vicki Pozzebon

When President Obama was elected, the spotlight turned to Washington D.C., where he promised to enact national climate change legislation. Now that Congress has passed on a climate bill, attention is shifting back to New Mexico, where steps are being taken to regulate global warming pollution.

In 2005, New Mexico established a statewide goal to reduce global warming emissions. (State of New Mexico, Office of the Governor. Executive Order 05-033.)

But the goal wasn’t enough; it didn’t require fossil fuel industries to transition to clean energy, and the fossil fuel polluters continued to emit large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Because global warming is an urgent crisis it demands immediate action to prevent climate catastrophe. The consequences of inaction are far too great, and the time remaining to reduce risks is running out.

People want solutions and don’t want to see our governments stuck in partisan gridlock. People don’t want to see our governments owned by fossil fuel interests. In response, New Energy Economy filed a Petition with the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) to set a cap on global warming emissions by levels consistent with the best climate science (EIB 08-19(R).

The Santa Fe Alliance, representing nearly 450 locally owned businesses and nonprofit organizations has supported this petition because we see that the long term economic impact from environmental abuse is counterproductive; we believe that evidence of climate change validates the need to act protectively and proactively.

The Oil and Gas Industry’s Response

What is PNM’s and NM Oil and Gas Association’s response? In their testimony, PNM and NM Oil and Gas Association have consistently opposed the cap on emission. PNM stated that “a state cap on greenhouse gasses would be costly for businesses and utility customers and that the emissions debate should be settled by the federal government.”

An overwhelming majority of mainstream climate scientists are predicting that temperatures across New Mexico have risen steeply over the past three decades, with the northernmost part of the state having warmed the most: 1.6°F since 1980. Without significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, New Mexico is projected to warm an additional 2°F by 2040 and 4°F by the end of the century.

There are health costs and environmental costs to inaction. The Program on Climate Economics of the Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI) estimate the minimum annual cost to each New Mexican household to be $3,430 by 2020 and $5,410 by 2040. With no changes in policies these costs could rise as high as $12,000 per household per year in 2080. The corresponding minimum total costs for New Mexico would be $3.2 billion in 2020, $6.3 billion in 2040 and $18.4 billion in 2080. (From “An Overview of Potential Economic Costs to New Mexico of a Business-As-Usual Approach to Climate Change,” February 2009, www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/…/021609_ClimateEconomicsImpactsReport.pdf ). As the leader of a community organization dedicated to developing a local living economy that creates greater community wealth for all, I can safely say those are numbers we cannot ignore.

Why should we listen to the advice and cries from the same industries that have caused the pollution?

What Do Investors Say?

There is another perspective:  Investors. Investors from Ceres (pronounced “series”), a national network of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups worth $13 trillion have this to say: “The world can no longer afford business as usual. We must begin to reward activities that assure our future, and discourage practices that degrade our environment and society. Opportunity grows from these challenges. The breakdowns we are now seeing from an economy focused on short-term gains and growth at all costs are opening doors to revamp government, business and investment practices.” The very first measures they deem as “critical” are: “Short- and long-term emission reduction targets” and “policies that put an effective price on carbon such that businesses and investors reassess investment value and redirect their investments.” (From www.ceres.org/Document.Doc?id=520).

New Energy Economy’s regulation to cap carbon before the EIB is not a panacea. But it will put us on a path. It is commonly known that energy efficiency implementation has not achieved its technical or economically feasible potential in New Mexico, and many believe that industry could meet the targets set by the Petition if industry enacted serious energy efficiency and conservation measures.

New Mexico’s Role

Additionally, New Mexico has abundant renewable energy resources and has an extraordinary opportunity to benefit by creating a new direction for energy in America. New Mexico also can help our country become energy independent by becoming a leading exporter of clean renewable energy and new energy technologies. People believe in and are hungry to participate in building a clean energy economy.

Currently over 80 cents of every dollar we spend with PNM is leaving our state. Imagine the revenue we could capture if we increased local production of renewable energy. That money could flow into our education and health care coffers for statewide services. Imagine a New Mexico that creates its own wealth through its own energy.

Recovering and restoring local food and energy production requires a conscious transformation and set of ecological and economic leaps for our communities. In recognizing the links between health, food, fuel scarcity and poverty, energy, and green jobs, we can address the global challenge of climate change and peak oil and the economic and health challenges afflicting New Mexico.

I urge you to support the carbon cap as an effective economic and policy stimulus.

Vicki Pozzebon is the Executive Director of the Santa Fe Alliance, a non profit organization working toward building a local living economy through community, local ownership and advocacy. Visit www.santafealliance.com for more information.

“We Don’t Have An Agenda – We Just Want To Be Safe”

By Tracy Dingmann

It’s been a week since the Environmental Improvement Board held a hearing in Mesquite, N.M. on Helena Chemical’s request to waive an air quality permit for its fertilizer-blending operations there. I was only there for a short time, but I gathered enough information while there to fuel a week’s worth of writing.

The window for public comment on Helena’s request closes today (July 28) – a decision on the request is expected later this summer.

An Emotional Plea

One of the most moving speakers at the last week’s hearing was Larry Sedillo, a teacher and one of the founding members of Mesquite Community Action, Committee. The group is suing Helena for negligence, alleging that Helena’s practice of blending fertilizer is sickening local children, causing asthma, chronic respiratory infections, nosebleeds and severe chronic bronchitis.

In his often-emotional testimony, Sedillo spoke of the uncertainty of living next to the Helena plant and not knowing for sure how it is affecting the health of the people in the community.

Like pretty much everything else in the town, the school at which Sedillo teaches is very close to the plant.

“We’ve got kids coming into school at 7:30 in the morning and their eyes are burning. Talk to parents at our school. These things are happening and they are going to continue to happen. Our quality of life is going to keep going down.”

The smell from the plant is sickening in itself, Sedillo said.

“We can’t stand the smell, and we are wondering why we are getting sick. I don’t know why we don’t see people in the street complaining to Helena every day.”

Some people have asked why people in Mesquite don’t just move, Sedillo said. Echoing many of the others who spoke at the hearing, Sedillo pointed to the deep roots many have in the community, living on land that was passed down to them from ancestors. Most people who live in Mesquite don’t have the resources to leave – and why should they have to, Sedillo asked.

“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed – I’m proud of Mesquite. Those lawyers have a job to do, and that is to protect Helena. We have a job to do in Mesquite, and that is to protect each other. We are standing up – we are not going to lay down and die!”

“We don’t have an agenda – We just want to be safe.”

A Question of Fairness and Safety

Sedillo also addressed what he called the “outrage” of Helena asking to be let out of an air quality permit.

The company has already shown that it will not comply with state regulations unless it is forced to, Sedillo said. Every other company that works with chemicals in New Mexico is expected to comply – how is it fair to allow Helena to regulate themselves?

“This is a company that’s had numerous violations. If I had a company or I did something at my house where I dumped chemicals in the air or on the ground or in the water, I would be liable. For me it is an outrage to say this chemical plant doesn’t need a permit,” Sedillo said.

“They were working with sulphuric acid and anhydrous ammonia, mixing chemicals,” Sedillo said. “There was a vapor in the air that caused burning of the eyes, so we contacted them. They come back and say now – we stopped the process. They only did it because WE stopped them.”

“Otherwise they would still be doing it.”

A Report From Mesquite, N.M.

By Tracy Dingmann

I traveled to Mesquite, N.M. yesterday to attend the Environmental Improvement Board’s hearing on Helena Chemical Company’s request that they be allowed to operate their fertilizer blending plant without an air quality permit.

I didn’t get to write about the hearing the way I wanted to – with tweets and frequent posts throughout the day – because there was no wifi at the church where the hearing was held.

It was almost a blessing, though, because I was able to concentrate fully on the testimony from the people who live in Mesquite, none of whom were able to travel to Santa Fe for hearings on the permit earlier in the month.

For the citizens of Mesquite, the EIB hearing at Our Lady of Perpetual Help was a coveted chance to directly explain to state officials what life living next to Helena Chemical’s operation is like.

For me, visiting Mesquite for the first time, it was a chance to see how thoroughly the Tennessee-based chemical plant dominates the historic farming village with its smells, its dust and the sheer size and number of its structures.

Helena enlisted a number of corporate boosters who testified at the hearing that the company is a good corporate citizen who is being inexplicably singled out and scapegoated by various individuals and the New Mexico Environment Department.

Much has been written about community organizer Arturo Uribe, whom Helena sued for defamation over claims Uribe made about the company’s operations making local children sick.

And there has been a lot of talk about how the suit has intimidated and silenced the people of Mesquite.

But sitting there in the church, I heard from lots of people who gathered their courage to finally tell their stories to the very people with the power to hold Helena accountable. The fear and anger and uncertainty they feel about the chemical giant in their midst is real.

It was a moving experience.

In my short time in Mesquite, I learned a lot and observed conditions there first-hand. Over the next two days, I’ll talk about it in a series of posts and relate the stories some of the people who told their stories at the hearing.

But for now, this account from today’s Las Cruces Sun-News is a good backgrounder and contains information at the end of the story for people who might still want to comment.

The EIB will accept written comment on Helena’s request through July 28.

Climate Change: On the Frontlines at the EIB

Robby Rodriguez

Climate control is too important to leave in the hands of the U.S. Congress…or in the hands of the highly-paid lobbyists who speak for the energy companies and huge corporations.

That’s why it’s so important now for states to take the lead – and New Mexico has emerged as one of the boldest, says social justice activist Robby Rodriguez in a new essay just published in High Country News.

Rodriguez, who is executive director of the Albuquerque-based SouthWest Organizing Project, says New Mexicans should be proud that SWOP, New Energy Economy and more than a dozen groups are currently petitioning to make New Mexico a leader in the nation when it comes to regulating greenhouse gases.

The groups are asking the state’s Environmental Protection Board to place a science-based cap on the amount on global warming emissions in the state to 25 percent below 1990 levels. This is the minimum action recommended by the global scientific community to mitigate the impact of global change.  If approved, New Mexico’s plan could be used as a national model for other states.

Rodriguez writes that he was moved when he heard faith leaders, doctors, scientists, advocates, renewable energy producers and more testify at a March 1 public hearing on the petition.

From the HCN piece:

Those who spoke in favor of the petition in front of the EIB represented lifelong residents of the Four Corners area in northwestern New Mexico—one of the most heavily polluted areas in the country–who spoke of noxious fumes and the devastating impacts of the oil, gas and coal industries on their health, land and animals.  Young people talked about their future.  A pregnant mother talked about her soon-to-be-born son.  Faith leaders, renewable energy producers, advocacy organizations, doctors, scientists and local government officials all came forward in favor of capping greenhouse emissions.  The room was packed—standing room only!

It was beautiful.

Then  Rodriguez spoke of the parade of corporate CEOs, lobbyists and even some tea partiers, all of whom spoke against the petition.

From the HCN essay:

And then came the parade of polluters.  PNM, the major electric utility company in New Mexico led the way as grand marshal.  They were followed by suits representing the energy, mining, oil, gas, coal, agribusiness and other manufacturing industries, and of course, their shareholders.  Also in the parade were the various chambers of commerce and of course the new kids on the block, the ‘teabaggers.’ They cited all the usual “if we do this the sky will fall” arguments.  They argued the matter should be decided by our state legislature or by the congress at the national level or at the international level—as though the long political process necessary to overcome the massive propaganda campaigns they wage is time we can afford. .  We’ve heard it all before.

It got ugly.

And that was just the beginning. The EIB will continue to hold hearings throughout the summer and is scheduled to rule on the petition sometime in the fall.

As this battle plays out, we at Clearly New Mexico hope New Mexico continues to stand firm on the front lines of the battle over climate control.