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THURS: Bid to overhaul NM oil and gas regulations clears first hurdle, + More

Pumpjacks work in a field near Lovington, N.M., on April 24, 2015. Land managers in one of the top oil and gas producing states in the U.S. have plugged more than 200 inactive wells on state trust lands. New Mexico officials announced Wednesday, April 19, 2023, that the cleanup costs are being shouldered by the industry as part of the State Land Office's accountability and enforcement program.
Charlie Riedel
Pumpjacks work in a field near Lovington, N.M., on April 24, 2015.

Bid to overhaul New Mexico oil and gas regulations clears first hurdle amid litigation - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An effort to modernize state oversight of a thriving petroleum industry in the nation's No. 2 state for oil production advanced past its first committee vetting Thursday at the New Mexico Legislature.

The bill would rewrite portions of the state's 1930s-era Oil and Gas Act in order to help regulators keep pace with the industry's meteoric growth in recent years — and increasingly assertive calls to hold the sector accountable for air pollution, spills and the costly cleanup of equipment and abandoned wells.

It advanced on 6-5 vote of the lead House committee on natural resources, over the objections of small and moderate sized oil producers — but with the public endorsements of industry heavyweights Occidental Petroleum and EOG Resources.

The initiative would increase financial assurances for well plugging and cleanups, while ratcheting up administrative fees and penalties for regulatory violations. The bill also would give regulators greater authority over applications to transfer ownership of wells that often change hands when oil and natural gas output declines.

Bill cosponsor Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo urged colleagues to rally behind the bill, warning that a downturn in the industry could saddle the state with immense liabilities for orphaned wells.

"If we can't put appropriate safeguards in place during record (oil) production then we're never going to have those safeguards in place," he said. "We've had boom industries in New Mexico before. We had uranium mining — they went bust. We're still dealing with that legacy that was not cleaned up."

Initial provisions were dropped from the bill that would have established no-drilling buffer zones around schools, residences, surface waters and critical habitats across New Mexico, to the dismay of environmentalists and community advocates who vowed to press legislators to reinstate setback requirements. The State Land Office recently imposed its own buffer around schools.

The Democratic-led Legislature and governor are being sued over alleged failures to meet constitutional provisions for protecting against oil and gas pollution, as fed-up residents living near oil wells and environmental groups turn to the judiciary for relief. A lawsuit filed in May 2023 seeks compliance with a "pollution control clause" of the New Mexico Constitution.

"This bill utterly fails to impose any real restrictions on the oil industry and does nothing to protect frontline communities from the toxic pollution they're exposed to every single day," said Gail Evans, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel in the lawsuit to plaintiffs including Indigenous Lifeways, Pueblo Action Alliance, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action.

Democratic state Rep. Nathan Small of Las Cruces — the lead House budget negotiator — warned that deleted provisions from the bill "would make it extremely difficult and unlikely for these important fiscal protections to move forward." He voted to advance the bill toward a second vetting before a possible House floor vote.

Ahtza Chavez, executive director of the Native American environmental and social justice group NM Native Vote, participated in working groups on the bill organized by Gov. Lujan Grisham over the past six months, alongside state oil-field regulators and industry representatives.

She called the elimination of setback requirements "devastating" but pledged support for the amended bill.

"They've had 90 years to do better and they have not protected our communities," said Chavez, an Albuquerque resident who is Diné, tracing her ancestry to the Navajo.

The committee-endorsed bill would increase a common financial assurance to remediate multiple wells from a maximum of $250,000 to $10 million. The cap on daily penalties for regulatory violations would increase from $2,500 to as much as $25,000, with no cumulative limit.

Voting against the bill, Republican state Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs, said the initiative represents an existential threat to small-scale oil and natural gas producers, echoing concerns raised by several businesses.

"The concern is that, with the stroke of a pen, financial assurances and penalties can put these small operators completely out of business," said Scott, also a petroleum-industry engineer.

The bill would also expand the state's regulatory authority over other types of well activity in anticipation of a gradual transition away from fossil fuel production — including geothermal projects that harness underground heat to produce electricity, or emerging underground systems of kinetic energy storage.

Higher education leaders show up to support Yazzie-Martinez bill - Megan Taros, Source New Mexico
Dozens of people testified before the House Education Committee on Wednesday asking it to approve a bill that supporters argue would help bring the state closer to compliance with the Yazzie-Martinez ruling.

House Bill 39, introduced by Rep. Yanira Gurrola (D-Albuquerque), asks for more than $27 million in appropriations to fund more than 40 items, which intend to support bilingual education programs in public colleges, universities and tribal colleges. There are goals to use that investment to build pipelines to bring bilingual educators into K-12 schools after graduation.

Gurrola, serving her first full legislative session, said the bill would also support bilingual mental health care and bilingual medicine programs for future physicians.

“We need to provide an opportunity for all New Mexico students to participate in bilingual, multicultural education programs,” said Susana Ibarra Johnson, a witness for the bill and assistant professor in bilingual education and Teaching English as a Second Language at New Mexico State University.

The bill passed 7-3, with some committee members absent. The bill now heads to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Supporters said the bill outlines a wise use of state money to address inequities in the public education system for bilingual and multicultural students, especially now that the state has historic revenues.

“The (Yazzie-Martinez) ruling was clear that a lack of funds is no excuse. This upcoming budget year there are not lack of funds,” said Steve Siañez, government relations director for National Education Association New Mexico. “The funds appropriated in this bill are a mere drop in the bucket, and our students should never be a drop in the bucket. They are the future of the state … Es hora. It’s time.”

The Public Education Department has requested $5 million for bilingual and multicultural education in public schools.

Educators who supported the bill, which includes Native language programs in its provisions, said it was an opportunity to empower bilingual students and students of color to succeed.

Mary Earick, dean of the School of Education at New Mexico Highlands University, called the bill “historic” for bringing together colleges and universities for a common goal of supporting diverse students.

She cited an Annenberg Institute studythat showed students who saw themselves in curriculum and staff, academic and social outcomes for those students went up by 45%.

“We have the opportunity here, today, together to see those findings here in New Mexico,” Earick said.

Republicans were on the fence for varying reasons, including sustainability, the non-reverting nature of the funds and that some components of the bill went beyond the scope of addressing the Yazzie-Martinez ruling.

The three Republicans who voted no – Reps. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell), Brian Baca (R-Los Lunas) and Jack Chatfield (R-Mosquero) – said they supported the intent of the bill, but ultimately voted no.

“We’ve seen what’s happened to oil and gas over the last 20 years,” Ezzell said. “We’ve seen prices skyrocket, hit bottom and go back up. I don’t want to get a program like this started and have the rug pulled from under us.”

Rep. Ryan Lane (R-Aztec) was present in committee and absent for the vote.

Lane told Source New Mexico after the hearing that he is open to support the bill but has some concerns about the funding model.

Regis Pecos, a witness for the bill and co-founder of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, said some of the flaws that resulted in so few bilingual and multicultural educators and health care workers were “created but not taken responsibility by higher education institutions.”

“We either invest now or pay the consequences of what has resulted in the neglect of appropriately supporting these programs to create the kind of human capital capacity that we don’t have,” Pecos (Cochiti) said. “If we don’t invest we’re never going to have the ability, the capability, of addressing the education crisis.”

Four members of APD DWI unit added to DA’s list of untrustworthy officers - Elise Kaplan & Bethany Raja, City Desk ABQ 

Four names were just added to the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office list of officers who have credibility issues—colloquially referred to as a Giglio disclosure.

They are Honorio Alba, Joshua Montano, Nelson Ortiz and Harvey Johnson and their names appear over and over as the arresting officers in the list of more than 150 DWI cases prosecutors dismissed last week in the midst of a federal investigation. The Albuquerque Police Department has said that the investigation involves “allegations of wrongdoing by officers who currently work for, or who have worked for the DWI Unit in the past.”

Four officers are on administrative leave from the department and a fifth has been re-assigned. No charges have yet been filed and authorities have not released detailed information about the investigation. The office of a local defense attorney, Thomas Clear, was searched by federal authorities as well.

John D’Amato, an attorney for the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, declined to comment.

In an interview with City Desk Abq on Tuesday, District Attorney Sam Bregman confirmed that the reason his office dismissed the DWI cases had to do with Giglio disclosures.

“I had no choice but to dismiss those cases because I won’t put forth witnesses that have integrity issues,” he said.


Following the 1972 Supreme Court case Giglio v. United States, prosecutors are required to share information with defense attorneys that could cast doubt on the integrity of a witness—for instance, the officer who made the arrest.

Across the country, prosecutors keep track of law enforcement officers who have ethical or legal violations in their personnel file that could impact how a jury perceives their testimony in court.

Maggie Shepard, a spokesperson for the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said if police officers have issues of credibility, bias or misperceptions they should be addressed.

“One problem is that the defense attorneys in Metro Court are no longer entitled to pre-trial interviews with officers, so we don’t have an opportunity to confront these issues before trial,” she said in a statement. “It’s because officers have so much authority that they must also be transparent and accountable.”

When Bregman’s predecessor, Raúl Torrez, was the Second Judicial District Attorney, he made waves when he announced that as an transparency measure he would publish the names of officers who his office determined needed a Giglio disclosure.

His office distributed questionnaires to all local law enforcement asking about any investigations or findings of misconduct or bias. The initial list contained nine names and could easily be found on the DA’s website. It did not include any information about what credibility issues the officers on the list faced.

Torrez is now the state’s Attorney General. His office did not respond to questions as to whether or not he would implement the same transparency measures as when he was district attorney.

After Bregman was appointed to step into the vacated DA position, he re-designed the website. The Giglio list of officers is no longer there.

Nancy Laflin, a spokesperson with the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said the new administration updated their website months ago with information most frequently used by the public.

“We also believe in transparency – and any information regarding those reports is absolutely available if requested,” she said.

Laflin released the current Giglio list to City Desk ABQ in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request. There are 20 officers on the list, 18 of whom are with APD.

But, Laflin said, the DA’s office won’t be publishing the list on the website again anytime soon.

Latest federal court order favors right to carry guns in some New Mexico public parks - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A U.S. District Court judge is standing by her decision to block portions of a public health order from New Mexico's governor that would suspend the right to carry firearms in many public parks in the Albuquerque area, with appeals pending before a higher court.

The Monday order from Albuquerque-based Judge Kea Riggs denied a request from the governor to leave in place a temporary ban on firearms in some public places in greater Albuquerque, including most public parks.

Riggs earlier concluded that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not yet demonstrated a historical tradition of banning firearms in public parks or similar areas in the past, in response to a lawsuit by Torrance County resident James Springer — a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits filed against the governor by gun rights advocates.

"Our position is that's not something that is contemplated under the Second Amendment," said Springer's attorney, A. Blair Dunn, applauding the judge's order.

Last year, U.S. District Judge David Urias ruled in the other direction in a victory for the governor, rejecting a request from other gun rights advocates to block temporary firearms restrictions while challenges move forward. It will likely fall to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to reconcile the orders from Urias and Riggs.

Lujan Grisham spokesperson Maddy Hayden said Tuesday that the governor "respectfully" disagrees with Riggs.

"Judge Riggs' opinion ignores this caselaw and the massive amount of historical evidence in the record supporting the constitutionality of the temporary restrictions imposed by the public health order," Hayden said in an email. "We respectfully disagree with the opinion and are confident that our ongoing appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals will be successful."

Lujan Grisham, a second-term Democrat, invoked the emergency orders last year in response to a spate of gun violence including the fatal shooting of an 11-year-old boy outside a minor league baseball stadium.

Gun rights advocates also are urging the New Mexico Supreme Court to block the orders. The court recently heard oral arguments in the lawsuit brought by Republican state legislators, the National Rifle Association and several residents of the Albuquerque area.

The rest of the public health orders have remained intact, including directives for monthly inspections of firearm dealers statewide, reports on gunshot victims at New Mexico hospitals, wastewater testing for illicit substances at schools and more.

During a 30-day legislative session that concludes Feb. 15, Lujan Grisham also is advocating for a broad suite of legislative proposals on gun control and enhanced penalties for violent crime.

On Tuesday, a proposal to shore up New Mexico's red-flag gun law advanced past its first House committee hearing on a 4-2 party-line vote with Democrats in support of the bill from legislators including state Rep. Christine Chandler, of Los Alamos. Votes against the bill were cast by two Republican lawmakers who are pursuing impeachment proceedings against the governor for her emergency health orders on gun violence.

New Mexico's red-flag law, aimed at removing firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others, was enacted in 2020 in response to a mass shooting by a lone gunman at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, the prior year that killed 23 people. Proposed changes would expedite procedures for obtaining an "extreme risk" order to seize firearms and expand the range of people who can petition to temporarily remove guns to include health care professionals.


This version corrects the spelling of the first name of Judge Kea Riggs and the number of people killed in El Paso to 23, not 24.

FEMA devotes more resources to outstanding claims filed by New Mexico wildfire victims - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that it is devoting more resources to processing outstanding claims filed by victims of the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history.

The 2022 blaze was caused by a pair of prescribed fires that were set by the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to clear out vegetation to reduce the threat of a catastrophic wildfire. Officials have acknowledged that they underestimated the dry conditions that had been plaguing the region for years.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed, thousands of residents were displaced and mountains were charred, leaving behind damage that experts say will have environmental effects for decades to come.

FEMA officials said more employees have been placed on temporary assignment to help with the claims and the agency is prioritizing claims that were submitted some time ago.

The agency has received $518 million in claims with documentation and has approved $330 million in payments so far for people with property, financial and business losses, said John Mills, a spokesperson for the agency.

The federal government set aside nearly $4 billion last year to pay claims related to the wildfire. Lawsuits have been filed by residents who say FEMA has been slow to pay their claims.

The federal agency recently announced that it will be implementing new rules this year aimed at simplifying and speeding up the recovery process for natural disasters nationwide. FEMA officials called it the most comprehensive update to its individual assistance program in two decades.

The changes were the result of feedback from survivors, organizations that work in disaster recovery, and elected officials. New Mexicans have been among those calling for changes in the wake of the wildfire.

The announcement that more employees will be assigned to claims from the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire follows a letter sent Monday by members of New Mexico's congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan pointed to the failure of the claims office to meet a congressionally mandated 180-day deadline for settling each claim.

They said the deadline already has been missed on more than 100 claims and that the office is expected to reach the deadline on many more in the coming weeks.

Members of the delegation said it's important that any new claim reviewers brought on to address the backlog understand their role is not that of insurance adjusters trying to save money but rather to use the resources provided by Congress to satisfy claims.

"The people of northern New Mexico endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of the federal government, which started the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge you to do everything in your power to expedite the process to compensate claimants."