THURS: Proposed Rules Target Oilfield Pollution, Drought Prompts Boat Ramp Closures, + More

May 6, 2021


New Mexico Proposes More Rules To Curb Oil And Gas Emissions - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Oilfield equipment that emits smog-causing pollution would be targeted by New Mexico environmental regulators under a proposed rule made public Thursday by the state Environment Department.

The release of the proposal marks the next step in a process that started nearly two years ago as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other top Democrats in the state announced their intentions to curb emissions across the oil and natural gas sector. The state created a working group made up of industry, environmentalists and other experts to help in crafting the regulations.

The rules proposed by the state Environment Department are part of a two-pronged approach, which Environment Secretary James Kenney touted as the most comprehensive effort in the U.S. to tackle pollution blamed for exacerbating climate change. State oil and gas regulators adopted separate rules earlier this year to limit venting and flaring as a way to reduce methane pollution.

The Environment Department opted to remove all exemptions from an earlier version of its rule that was drafted last year. The proposal also includes minimum requirements for operators to calculate their emissions and have them certified by an engineer and to find and fix leaks on a monthly basis.

New Mexico is home to part of the Permian Basin, which is one of the world's most productive oilfields. Environmentalists had been pressuring the state over the past several months not to allow any exceptions, pointing to elevated levels of emissions in New Mexico's oilfields.

The Environment Department's rule will apply in counties with high ozone levels. Currently, this includes Chaves, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan, and Valencia counties.

Kenney said the state considered the reductions that could be achieved in volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides by including all types of wells, even those with low potential for emissions.

"From a science-based perspective as well as a public health perspective as well as an environmental perspective, it was the right thing to do," Kenney said of removing all of the exemptions.

While the industry generally supported the rules adopted by the Oil Conservation Division, the Environment Department's proposal spurred some concerns Thursday.

Leland Gould, chairman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the industry group and its members are committed to protecting the health and environment of the communities where they operate and they support sound, science-based regulations to reduce methane emissions and ozone levels.

"As we review the rule in detail, we will look for opportunities to engage the department with industry's technical professionals to encourage greater innovation and cost-effective solutions, consistent with other regulatory requirements," he said, noting that responsible energy development will continue to pay dividends when it comes to supporting state spending and the overall economy.

State officials pointed to what they described as an unlevel playing field when it comes to industry and the government. There are seven inspectors for more than 50,000 wells, meaning regulators will lean heavily on technological advancements for monitoring oil and gas operations. Kenney said that will include aerial inspections, the use of special cameras and infrared drones.

The state expects the rule, once adopted sometime next year, to lead to reductions in ozone-causing pollution that would equal taking 8 million cars off the road every year. Methane emissions also would be reduced as a result, Kenney said.

"We will ensure compliance with these rules because public health is at stake," he told reporters during a briefing.

The proposed rule also establishes emission reduction requirements for equipment like compressors, turbines, heaters and other pneumatic devices.

If companies violate the rules, they could be hit with notices of violation, orders to comply and possibly civil penalties.

Kenney acknowledged that the rules will come with a cost for operators. Advocates for the industry have raised concerns about the rules pushing development across the border into neighboring Texas, which shares a portion of the Permian Basin.

Persistent Drought Makes New Mexico Parks Shut Boat RampsAssociated Press

New Mexico's reservoirs are shrinking because of a persistent drought, and officials with the State Parks Division said Thursday they are being forced to close boat ramps throughout the state as a result.

Officials said water levels at many state park lakes are extremely low and that the ramp closures are in place to address public safety concerns and to prevent property damage during the launching and loading of boats.

Storrie Lake State Park near Las Vegas, New Mexico, closed its boat ramp to all motorized vessels effective immediately Thursday. Other boat-ramp closures are in effect at Clayton, Conchas, Heron and Santa Rosa lakes.

One ramp at Elephant Butte Lake, the state's largest reservoir, is closed. The North Ramp at El Vado also is off limits.

Park officials said visitors still will be allowed to hand launch paddle craft or small vessels from the shorelines.

The latest drought map shows much of the southwestern U.S. is mired in drought. In New Mexico, more than 52% of the state is dealing with exceptional drought, which is the worst category. A year ago, that percentage was zero.

While there have been more dry years than wet ones over the past two decades, parts of New Mexico missed out on last summer's monsoon season. Winter did not result in much snowpack, and the rain this spring has been far from enough to put a meaningful dent in the deficit.

Climate experts say most of the rain that has fallen in recent weeks has been soaked up by the dry soil, meaning there is less storm runoff that makes its way to the state's streams and rivers and ultimately the reservoirs.

Albuquerque Police Say No Gun Brought Onto Middle School Campus – Associated Press

A report that a student was seen entering an Albuquerque middle school Thursday morning with a gun has proved to be inaccurate, police said.

The Tony Hillerman Middle School was evacuated classroom by classroom while police canvassed the campus.

They said no weapon was found and it's been determined that a gun was not brought to school.

According to police, three students were speaking in a courtyard when one student pointed a cell phone at the others as though he was holding a gun.

A teacher reportedly saw the encounter and believed she saw the student holding a gun.

The school went on lockdown and police from several agencies responded.

Albuquerque police also sent a gun-detection dog through the school to confirm no weapons were located on the premises.

Vigils, Rallies Mark Day Of Awareness For Indigenous Victims - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Some shared agonizing stories of frustration and loss. Others prayed and performed ceremonies. All called for action.

Across the U.S. on Wednesday, family members, advocates and government leaders commemorated a day of awareness for the crises of violence against Indigenous women and children. They met at virtual events, vigils and rallies at state capitols and raised their voices on social media.

In Washington, a gathering hosted by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other federal officials started with a prayer asking for guidance and grace for the Indigenous families who have lost relatives and those who have been victims of violence. 

Before and after a moment of silence, officials from various agencies vowed to continue working with tribes to address the problem.

As part of the ceremony, a red memorial shawl with the names of missing and slain Indigenous women was draped across a long table to remember the lives behind what Haaland called alarming and unacceptable statistics. More names were added to the shawl Wednesday.

Haaland, the first Native American U.S. Cabinet secretary and a former Democratic U.S. representative from New Mexico, recalled hearing families testify about searching for loved ones on their own and bringing a red ribbon skirt to a congressional hearing that represented missing and slain Native Americans.

She believes the nation has reached an inflection point, and said it's time to solve the crisis.

"Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, but the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis is one that Native communities have faced since the dawn of colonization," Haaland said as she joined the event virtually.

In Montana, a few dozen members of the state's eight federally recognized tribes gathered in front of the Capitol in Helena, including many relatives of missing and slain Indigenous women. Some wore red or had handprints painted over their mouths, symbolizing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's movement.

Marvin Weatherwax, a Democratic state representative and member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said legislative initiatives to address the issue have given tribal citizens hope. The Blackfeet tribe has two ongoing searches for missing members.

The event ended with a ceremony called the "Wiping Away of Tears," where victims' family members were given colorful shawls. The gifts marked the coming out of mourning, said Jean Bearcrane, a citizen of the Crow tribe and executive director of Montana Native Women's Coalition.

"Among the tribes, when people are grieving, they wear black," she said.

The sisters, mothers and aunts of missing women shed tears as they received their shawls.

Indigenous women have been victimized at astonishing rates, with federal figures showing that they — along with non-Hispanic Black women — have experienced the highest homicide rates. 

Yet a 2018 Associated Press investigation found nobody knows the precise number of cases of missing and murdered Native Americans nationwide because many go unreported, others aren't well documented, and no government database specifically tracks them.

In New Mexico, members of the state's task force on Wednesday shared some of the findings of their work over the past year, which included combing through public records and requesting data from nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies to better understand the scope of the problem. Only five agencies responded.

Even with such limited data, they pointed to an estimated 660 cases involving missing Indigenous people between 2014 and 2019 in the state's largest urban center, putting Albuquerque among U.S. cities with the highest number of cases.

New Mexico's task force will be expanded and its work extended into 2022, with the goal of recommending policy changes and legislation. 

Other states also have established task forces or commissions to focus on the problem, with Hawaii becoming the latest through legislation that points to land dispossession, incarceration and harmful stereotypes as reasons for Native Hawaiians' increased vulnerability to violence.

In Arizona, a couple of dozen people wearing red shirts and skirts gathered in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix. They included several state lawmakers, along with representatives of the Phoenix Indian Center and the motorcycle group Medicine Wheel Ride, which has been carrying a message of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Shelly Denny, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and member of Medicine Wheel Ride, noted support for the cause has been growing as more members of Native communities share their stories.

"This movement was started by Indigenous women, many of whom their names will probably never be known. But they've been inching the movement forward," she said. 

Now, she said, "we'll need to move into prevention, protection and prosecution."

President Joe Biden has promised to bolster resources to address the crisis and better consult with tribes to hold perpetrators accountable and keep communities safe. 

Haaland said that includes more staffing in a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs unit dedicated to solving cold cases and coordinating with Mexico and Canada to combat human trafficking.

The administration's work will build on some of the initiatives started during former President Donald Trump's tenure. That included a task force made up of the Interior Department, the Justice Department and other federal agencies to address violent crime in Indian Country. 

Advocates have said a lack of resources, language barriers and complex jurisdictional issues have exacerbated efforts to locate those who are missing and solve other crimes in Indian Country. They also have pointed to the need for more culturally appropriate services and training for how to handle such cases.

Over the past year, advocacy groups also have reported that cases of domestic violence against Indigenous women and children and sexual assault increased as nonprofit groups and social workers scrambled to meet the added challenges that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.

Bryan Newland, principal assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department, said staffing at the Bureau of Indian Affairs unit will go from a team of 10 to more than 20 officers and special agents with administrative and support staff it previously didn't have.

He also said the federal government has started distributing funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, including $60 million for public safety and law enforcement in Indian Country.

"We're really looking to build upon many of the things that have been done, to expand them and bring focus to them," Newland said.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID Deaths For 3rd Time In 4 Days - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported seven new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the third time in the last four days.

Tribal health officials said the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago now is 30,550 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll remained at 1,282.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated, but people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

Last week, the Navajo Department of Health loosened some virus-driven restrictions and transition to "yellow status." 

Restaurants now are allowed to have in-door dining at 25% capacity and outdoor dining at 50% capacity.

Parks are permitted to open at 25% capacity but only for residents and employees. 

Navajo casinos are open at 50% capacity, but only for residents and staff.

Biologists Find Disease-Causing Fungus On New Mexico Bats - Associated Press

Federal land managers have confirmed that a disease-causing fungus has been found on hibernating bats in two eastern New Mexico caves.

The Bureau of Land Management reported this week that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome also was found on the walls of the caves during routine surveillance conducted last month in De Baca and Lincoln counties. 

A team of biologists observed a white powdery growth consistent with the fungus on numerous bats in the caves. Laboratory testing confirmed their suspicions. 

White-nose syndrome has been confirmed in 36 states, including neighboring Texas and Oklahoma, and several Canadian provinces.

Officials said any new sign of its spread is worrisome because bats are vital for healthy ecosystems. 

Although bats themselves are the primary way the fungus spreads, possible spread by human activity in caves is a concern. Officials advised people to stay out of closed caves and mines and to decontaminate footwear and all cave gear before and after visiting or touring caves and other places where bats live.

Virus Restrictions Ease Across Much Of New MexicoAlbuquerque Journal, KUNM

A new statewide map released Wednesday from the New Mexico Department of Health shows that most of New Mexico is now at the turquoise level, the least restrictive under state guidelines.

Eight counties, including the three most populous, Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana, have advanced to turquoise under public health criteria that includes the per-capita incidence of new COVID-19 cases, average test positivity within county borders and the county vaccination rate.  

Catron and Valencia counties are now at the next least restrictive green level and one county, Chaves, is at the yellow level.

The Albuquerque Journal reported this means bars and clubs in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces can now operate at 33% capacity indoors. Restaurants and essential retail spaces can operate with 75% capacity indoors. Large entertainment venues can now be at 50% capacity indoors.

Houses of worship can be at 100% capacity indoors and lodging properties that complete the state safe certified training have no occupancy limits. Recreational facilities can be at 50% capacity indoors.

State health officials Wednesday announced 214 additional COVID-19 cases and 2 deaths. There are 144 people hospitalized.

New Mexico To End Taxes On Medical Pot, Increase Grow Limits - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico will stop charging sales taxes on medical marijuana and begin revising current limits on pot cultivation June 29 in the first steps towards legalization of recreational marijuana, top health and licensing regulators announced Wednesday in a letter to authorized cannabis businesses.

Medical marijuana business last month voiced concerns about a potential run on pot supplies and shortages during the transition if authorities don't move soon to lift a statewide limit on the number of marijuana plants that can be raised by each licensed grower.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham enacted legislation last month that outlines the oversight, licensing and taxation of the recreational cannabis sector and sets an April 1, 2022, deadline for the first nonmedical marijuana sales.

State Heath Secretary Tracie Collins and Regulation and Licensing Superintendent Linda Trujillo disagree with warnings about an imminent marijuana shortage. They acknowledge that possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana becomes legal on June 29 — but that recreational marijuana sales won't kick off until later. The deadline for initiating those sales is April 1, 2021, and potentially earlier.

The state's newly enacted Cannabis Regulation Act leaves many decisions about marijuana oversight, including initial caps on cultivation, to the Regulation and Licensing Department and a rulemaking process that involves public comment.

"Rulemaking will include revisions to existing producer plant limits, although the content of the proposed rules has not yet been determined," the letter from regulators states. "The proposed rules will be made available to the public in late May, and a public hearing will be scheduled to occur on June 29, 2021, or shortly thereafter. Our agencies will welcome the input of medical cannabis producers and other interested members of the public as part of that rulemaking process."

Purchases by medical marijuana patients are still limited to a 90-day supply that some patients have challenged as inadequate. That limit will increase — though it is unclear to what extent.

The state's marijuana reforms do away with current gross receipts taxes on medical marijuana that added roughly 5% and 9% to transactions. That brings medical marijuana in line with tax exemptions for other medicine.

A new excise tax of 12% on recreational cannabis sales will not apply to medical cannabis for qualified, registered patients.

New Mexico Officials Says 60% Vaccination Goal Within Reach Associated Press

Top state health officials said Wednesday that New Mexico is on track to meet its goal of a 60% vaccination rate for people 16 and older by the end of June that would allow the economy to reopen fully, amid new strategies aimed at breaking through hesitancy toward immunization.

About 57% of eligible New Mexico residents have received at least a first vaccine shot.

"We do think it's going to be harder to get the remaining group to be vaccinated," Human services Secretary David Scrase said at an online news conference. "I think it's eminently doable as long as the counties keep up the pace" of vaccines.

Rates of full vaccination run the gamut from about 23% in Roosevelt County, in southeastern New Mexico, to nearly 64% in McKinley County on the Arizona state line, an area that was hit especially hard by the virus last year.

Scrase said vaccine supplies are no obstacle as the federal pipeline for doses outstrips demand. The state hopes to use at least 70% of the weekly federal allotment.

State health authorities are offering vaccination clinics at small venues such as schools and churches in efforts to increase immunization rates. They are urging doctors to brief patients on the vaccine, and asking people who haven't been vaccinated to reach out to trusted sources of information.

State health officials say infections in New Mexico are now dominated by highly contagious variants of COVID-19, including ones that were first detected in the United Kingdom and California. Health Secretary Tracie Collins says that's all the more reason for people to get a vaccine shot to lower the chances of infection and virus-related hospitalization or death.

Judge Rules New Mexico Medical Cannabis Rules Overstep State LawSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The New Mexico Department of Health overstepped the intentions of a medical cannabis program by limiting who can receive access to marijuana in the state, a judge ruled.

The ruling by First District Judge Matthew Wilson came Monday after a complaint was filed by New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health, the state's largest medical cannabis producer, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The state law allows people with proof of authorization in medical cannabis programs in other states the ability to purchase medical marijuana in New Mexico. But Ultra Health argued that more than 5,000 people, most from out of state, were wrongly denied access.

"The department prevents enrollment if they present identification and authorization from different jurisdictions," said Democratic state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an attorney representing Ultra Health. "The department may think this is good policy, but it is a decision that is beyond the scope of their rule-making authority, and as a result, hundreds of patients a day are unable to access cannabis in New Mexico."

Wilson said the department made a rule change in March and started prohibiting medical marijuana patients from other states from enrolling in New Mexico's patient program and also denied New Mexico residents from enrolling as regular patients if they would qualify as reciprocal patients, or patients enrolled in another state.

Department of Health spokesman Jim Walton told The Santa Fe New Mexican that the department is considering its legal options.

Thomas Bird, an attorney with Keleher & McLeod representing the department, argued during last week's hearing that the agency had the authority to enforce regulations.

Ultra Health CEO Duke Rodriguez praised the ruling this week, saying the courts held the state Department of Health accountable.

"The law is clear, and patients' rights cannot simply be set aside by a regulator," he said.

UNM Weighs COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate To Return To CampusAssociated Press

The University of New Mexico may require students and staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19 to return to campus in the fall.

The university on Monday posted a proposed vaccine requirement along with a statement on its plans to return to in-person instruction and regular campus activities.

The university said it was seeking comment on the proposed requirement.

The requirement would apply to students and staff "unless they have been granted a reasonable accommodation," the proposal said.

In Las Cruces, New Mexico State University officials encourage everyone to get the vaccine but haven't decided to require students and employees to be vaccinated, university spokesman Justin Bannister told the Albuquerque Journal.

Numerous other colleges and universities nationwide have announced vaccination requirements.