New Mexico legislators need to stop repeat pollution offenders

Update on March 12th, 2021.

New Mexico’s Bad Actor bill is inching closer to becoming law. 

Last week the House passed it 42-36, and this week the Senate Conservation Committee voted 5-3 in favor. While the next step is a full vote on the Senate floor, opponents may try to run out the legislative session clock by sending HB-76 back to other committees or adding amendments that would volly it back over to the House Chamber. 

At every turn, oil and gas industry cheerleaders have made unsubstantiated claims that accountability for egregious violations of the law by operators would hurt New Mexico. 

But the truth is that only the worst, chronic polluters have anything to fear from a law that would protect New Mexicans’ health, land, air, and water. The bill would also level the playing field, making the Air Quality Control Act consistent with other state laws covering solid and hazardous waste, mining, and water quality. 

Sandra Ely, Director of New Mexico’s Environmental Protection Division, made clear during the Senate Conservation Committee hearing that HB-76 provides operators with a chance to demonstrate compliance with the law and a 10-year limit on the consideration of infractions–changes to the original bill that industry itself requested. 

As Director Ely pointed out, HB-76 would even allow New Mexico to address law-breaking operators just like other western states do, including South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas. 

“We rely on operators to be trustworthy,” she said, citing the state’s lack of inspectors to sufficiently check up on oil and gas operators.  

If New Mexico’s regulators have to put some trust in operators, the least operators can do in return is give the agency recourse when they violate that trust–and harm New Mexico’s communities and environment in the process. 

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ORIGINAL POST

Say I have been caught many times continually running stop signs, speeding excessively, and driving long-haul trucks without a commercial license. Then the time comes for me to renew my drivers’ license. Shouldn’t the state Department of Motor Vehicles be allowed to consider my dangerous disregard for traffic safety rules when evaluating my application?  

That’s what a bill in the New Mexico legislature would do in the cases of oil and gas operators and other polluters. House Bill 76 would amend the Air Quality Control Act to allow the Environment Department (NMED) to deny air permits to applicants that are “bad actors.” In other words, if you have a track record of breaking the law, you could be prevented from doing so again. 

Yet HB-76 is currently stalled during an intense 60-day legislative session set to end in two weeks.

The legislature needs to vote on the bill because it would help stop polluters who have:

  • committed environmental crimes.
  • had permits revoked because they violated state and federal laws.
  • knowingly presented false information when applying for a permit.
  • constructed or operated a facility without proper permits, and then released air pollution at excessive levels.

HB-76 would give NMED the ability to in effect say “enough is enough” for repeat pollution offenders. The agency continues to document an increasing level of oil and gas pollution and the problem of excess emissions from specific sites and operators. 

Restrictions on bad actors are sorely needed in New Mexico. Earthworks has documented rampant oil and gas pollution statewide, with the same problems persisting for long periods of time before the operator or regulators address them. A key example is a large processing plant that is known to release higher levels of pollution than its permit allows–the operator of which was fined over $5 million for repeated violations of air standards.

Polluters who ignore the law and refuse to comply with permit requirements should not be allowed to conduct activities that harm health, the climate, and New Mexico’s unique environment. The provisions of HB-76 give NMED an essential tool for enforcement–and could even incentivize operators to follow rules and pollute less.

Stronger limits on bad actors are especially critical at a time when state environmental agencies are severely underfunded. As Earthworks has documented since 2012, New Mexico lacks both the resources and sometimes the political will to oversee the oil and gas industry and respond to public complaints about the pollution from which they suffer

To be clear, I have a clean driving record–but if I were a serial violator, I hope someone wouldn’t let me keep doing things that are likely to endanger others. “Good actors” have nothing to fear from HB-76–it’s the bad ones that need to be stopped before they harm communities again.

 

Image credit: Mr.TinDC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/7471115@N08/5004006023