“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” at the State Legislature

By KAY MATTHEWS

Editor’s Note: Senator Peter Wirth e-mailed a response to this article after its initial publication: “I do not support SB 440 [Lower Rio Grande water bill] or 463 [preemption of local governments from regulating oil and gas development]. I voted against 440 twice in Conservation and would have done so again had I been in Judiciary when the vote was taken. I voted for SB 547 [ban on fracking]. I realize Ethan was not happy with the committee process on 547 but we gave the bill what I felt was a fair hearing. We often limit each side to testimony in committees. In the end the votes were not there to pass the bill. Please know that there are some of us fighting in the Legislature on behalf of the environment and for good conservation measures.”

When the state legislature starts meeting on Saturdays you know the end is near and it’s not going to be pretty. This past Saturday, March 2, two important bills that generated intense controversy were heard in committee: Senate Bill 547, the ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, went “down in flames” in the Conservation Committee, while Senate Bill 440, the Lower Rio Grande water bill, glided through Judiciary, on to the Finance Committee.

Senator Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, chair of the Conservation Committee and member of Judiciary
Senator Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, chair of the Conservation Committee and member of Judiciary

I e-mailed Senator Peter Wirth, a member of the Judiciary and chair of the ConservationCommittee, where Senate Bill 440 was also heard and passed (albeit “Without Recommendation”), to ask him why this bill, which has been opposed by many in the progressive community as well as the Office of the Attorney General because of its potential impact on litigation between New Mexico and Texas over water deliveries, made it through these two committees. I never heard back.

The anti-fracking bill was heard in Wirth’s Conservation Committee before a packed audience, which, according to Occupy New Mexico numbered five to one in support of the bill. Ethan Genauer, affiliated with Occupy, wrote a scathing indictment of the hearing in an e-mail to Senator Wirth.  He complained of the arbitrary limit placed on the number of people allowed to testify compared to the number of them present, citing the confirmation hearing of Education Secretary Hanna Skandera where everyone in a sizeable crowd was allowed to speak. He also wrote: “Oil and gas lobbyist Kent Cravens, who epitomizes the revolving door between government and corporations (he was a State Senator from 2001 to 2011 until he resigned to take his current job lobbying for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association) was allowed to get away with spouting a slew of lies and overall avoidance of the key issues raised by the proposal for a fracking ban, and no one challenged him.”

Many activists in counties across New Mexico who have been working with their local governments to improve and expand county regulations on oil and gas extraction, particularly fracking, didn’t see any hope for passage of the anti-fracking bill against the economic and political strength of the oil and gas industry in New Mexico. They lobbied intensely against Senate Bill 463 that would preempt municipalities and county governments from regulating the “exploration, development, production, and transportation of oil and gas,” a bill introduced by Taos County Senator Carlos Cisneros, who in an interview on KVOT kept saying the bill is “dead in the water” and was only introduced to “raise everyone’s awareness,” although so far it appears to be alive. In the Fiscal Impact Report on the bill, The New Mexico Association of Counties (NMAC) writes that “State legislatures throughout the United States have uniformly delegated authority over planning and zoning issues to local government. The reason for this is obvious: zoning decisions often have a major impact on local communities, and county and municipal officials are the most knowledgeable and sensitive to the needs of residents in the community. All municipalities and counties are unique, and what is an acceptable development pattern in one city or county may be totally inappropriate in another. Local governments are charged with determining how to best safeguard the character of the local community and to make decisions that best protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. Residents elect local officials to represent their interests and to make decisions that affect their community.”

Local citizen oversight and action recently caused the Bureau of Land Management in Gunnison County, Colorado, to defer leases on 20,000 acres for oil and gas development in the northwestern part of that county. The leases would have permitted drilling in shale for the oil and gas resources that require the fracking method to release. The farmers and residents of towns in the valley successfully convinced the BLM that the leases would severely impact their lives and property. In an article in Colorado Central writer George Sibley, a resident of Gunnison County, did some math regarding what is called the “Energy Return on Energy Investment” (EROEI), a ratio derived from the energy required to produce the resource to the amount of energy the resource produces. The domestic crude oil that flows to the surface from shallow wells, which we now have essentially depleted, has an EROEI of 100:1, a huge net-energy gain. The shale oil we’re now extracting through the fracking process has an EROEI of about 20:1.

Senator Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, sponsor of SB 440
Senator Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, sponsor of SB 440

Genauer also addressed the Lower Rio Grande water bill in his e-mail to Senator Wirth. Senator Joseph Cervantes’s bill, as reported on February 27 in La Jicarita, would authorize an appropriation of $120 million for the “Interstate Stream Commission to acquire, retire, protect and conserve water rights and conserve water in the Lower Rio Grande,” which many consider a vague and unsustainable use of funds and a threat to northern New Mexico water rights. In his e-mail Genauer asks: “Why are we selling out Northern New Mexico to save large-scale farmers in the south who do not even have a regular practice of water conservation? When will we ever see equivalent funding for the health of the forests and watersheds of the North, which are literally the source of vitality for the entire Rio Grande basin? Why isn’t someone at least carrying a complementary bill to provide $120 million for Northern Rio Grande Water Rights? Unless we take urgent action to protect the forests and watersheds of the North, it’s only a matter of time before the natural disaster that recently hit Santa Clara Pueblo [Las Conchas fire] faces all of us. Anyone who spends time in the forests around Santa Fe knows that they are extremely vulnerable to catastrophic fire, as is Santa Fe’s own water supply. But all I see the legislature doing about this is symbolic Memorials— no money, no action, and certainly no foreseeable help from our dysfunctional, gridlocked, sequestration-stricken federal government.”

An article in the Las Cruces Sun-News on March 2 quoted Senator John Arthur Smith, D-Deming as saying Cervantes’s proposal can’t be funded this year at the $120 million level “because we don’t have resources like that.” But it could pass with a lesser amount, he said, adding that the bill was meant to draw attention of central and northern Rio Grande users. Smith, in a separate measure, sought funding for $100 million to build pipelines from the Gila River and the southeast. “They’re message bills trying to reflect the magnitude of the problem we have.”

So we have a $120 million “message” bill along with Carlos Cisneros’s “raise everyone’s awareness” bill wending their way through a legislative session of 1,300 bills that ends on March 16. Rest assured there will be another Saturday—and no doubt Sunday—down in the dirt scrambling to get a fraction of those bills passed.

Next week La Jicarita will publish the comments of Mark Sardella of the non-profit Local Energy organization, who testified as an expert witness for the anti-fracking bill before the Senate Conservation Committee.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for your response Senator Wirth and thank you for posting this information La Jicarita. It is so hard to find information about these key issues and LJ comes through.

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