WED: Lawmakers Voice Support For Biden's Oil Policies, Wildfires Smolder Across Southwest, + More

Jun 9, 2021

Biden's Oil Policies Highlight Rift In New Mexico Politics - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A small group of New Mexico lawmakers is supporting the Biden administration's pause and review of federal oil and gas lease sales, saying they are committed to moving away from the state's over-dependence on fossil fuels.

The group of 24 Democrats sent a letter Tuesday to the president and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The lawmakers wrote that planning for economic diversification and reducing the volatility of the industry's boom-and-bust cycles on the state's budget is in the best interest of pursuing priorities such as education and health care.

They also took aim at federal royalties and rents, saying the system is outdated.

"As the state's appropriators, we have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that we are appropriately charging for the benefit of extracting resources from our public lands so that New Mexicans receive a fair and true market value for these resources," the letter read.

The letter-writing effort was spearheaded by state Sen. Carrie Hamblen, who leads the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce.

Democratic legislative leaders were not among those who signed on, and those who did represent urban districts far from the state's oil and gas patches.

The majority of New Mexico lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are walking a more conservative line given the industry's significant role in funding state government and its effects on those corners of the state where the industry supports tens of thousands of jobs.

House Republican Leader Rep. Jim Townsend called the letter irresponsible, saying it failed to offer any concrete plans to protect New Mexico jobs and state revenues.

Citing statistics that place the state at the bottom when it comes to educational outcomes and families living in poverty, Townsend said there has to be a plan for transitioning to other energy sources so the state isn't left in worse shape. He said ceasing oil and gas operations in New Mexico would only drive investments and jobs elsewhere.

"It just doesn't make any sense. There's no reason for this other than it's an ideological mantra of that party right now to say we're all against fossil fuels," he said.

Lujan Grisham warned in a letter to President Joe Biden in March that New Mexico could lose nearly three-quarters of $1 billion over the next few years if it sees even a modest reduction of oil and gas production because of the federal government's actions to curb leasing on public lands.

The governor has said that financial losses of that magnitude would affect her administration's ability to achieve goals like universal access to early childhood education.

Legislative analysts earlier this year noted that the recovery in oil prices and production accounted for about 75% of the increase in expected general fund dollars for the state.

"Our legislators' time is better spent figuring out ways to grow and expand our economy rather than chop away at its most successful parts," said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

McEntyre said development on federal lands alone accounts for $1.5 billion — or nearly 20% — of New Mexico's budget. The concern, he said, is the chilling effect Biden's policies will have on future investments and production and ultimately state revenue.

"As the industry and other parts of the economy recover from the devastating impacts of the pandemic, leasing bans and other regulatory hurdles only insure that New Mexico's rebound is uneven and inconsistent with the neighboring states who do not share our economic characteristics," he said.

Officials Push For National PFAS Drinking Water Standard - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Setting a national drinking water standard for what have been referred to as "forever chemicals" will be important in addressing contamination at military bases and communities throughout the U.S., witnesses said Wednesday during a congressional hearing.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Jim Kenney was among those who testified about the contamination, which is linked to a a group of chemicals known as PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

New Mexico is locked in a court battle with the federal government over the cleanup of toxic plumes from past firefighting activities at two U.S. Air Force bases.

While the case runs its course, the state is trying to determine the size and scope of the contamination so it can begin to formulate plans for cleaning up the chemicals, which have leached into nearby water sources. The work will take another year to complete, but officials have said samples already show levels that exceed the health advisory set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by significant amounts.

Kenney said he can't protect New Mexicans without a federal regulatory framework for the chemicals.

"The EPA drinking water health advisory from 2016 was a great start, but it's now 2021 and there's no regulatory certainty for states and our communities," he said. "No person should suffer the negative health effects of PFAS — not in New Mexico or elsewhere."

Similar contamination has been found at numerous sites around the U.S., prompting lawsuits by other states and water utilities.

While the EPA is considering setting a maximum level for PFAS in drinking water nationwide, in Congress, there are several pieces of legislation pending that would address the problem in different ways, from allocating more money for the federal government for cleanup to mandating regulation of PFAS compounds.

Kenney also advocated for classifying discarded PFAS as a hazardous waste so that states can better regulate the chemicals.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said the contamination is not just a public health concern but has put farmers out of business and has resulted in falling property values near contaminated sites.

A patchwork of regulatory schemes across various states isn't enough, he said.

"Bottom line is this: PFAS is a sinister and pervasive threat to our families' health, a drag on local, state and national economies, and a problem that will not go away on its own," he said. "We need strategic national policies."

An environmental official from West Virginia and a mother from Pennsylvania also testified about the effects of the contamination in their states.

Joanne Stanton, co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, told the senators about her son being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor at the age 6. But it was only within the last several years that she learned drinking water in her community just north of Philadelphia had been contaminated for decades with PFAS.

That contamination has yet to be cleaned up, she said.

"It's the EPA's job to regulate chemicals, to set safe drinking water standards, and to hold polluters accountable — even when that polluter is the Department of Defense," she said. "And it's your job to hold EPA accountable when the agency fails to act. You all have the power to change the current course of history. You have the power to protect people like me, communities like mine."

Free Daycare Latest Virus Vaccine Perk Offered In New Mexico - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico's largest child care providers are offering free daycare for parents who are getting a COVID-19 vaccine before July 4, state officials announced Wednesday.

The child care offers covers dates of the vaccine appointments and in some cases, recovery time in ensuing days when parents might be feeling symptoms of a second dose.

The offer is part of the latest push to incentivize vaccine rollouts.

Earlier this month, New Mexico officials unveiled a $5 million sweepstakes for vaccinated adults, the largest such prize in the country. On Wednesday, they said there was a slight increase in vaccination registrations following the announcement of the cash prize.

Seven-day rolling average vaccination rates increased from 1,352 prior to the sweepstakes announcement to 1,437 daily registrations starting the first week of June, said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki, citing Department of Health statistics.

He said the slight uptick suggests it "may have contributed to a general flattening of, or even slight improvement upon, a recent downward trend in new registrations."

Companies have pitched in incentives as well, from free beer to free rides from app-based ride-hailing apps.

KinderCare in Albuquerque says it is providing free child care days as part of a nationwide effort to encourage vaccinations announced by the White House last week in the run-up to July 4th.

"We don't want a lack of child care to stop your family from making an appointment to get vaccinated or from taking a family member in to get their COVID vaccine," KinderCare district manager Aaron Alaniz said.

The company's four locations in Albuquerque are participating in the vaccine promotion, mostly Monday through Friday.

Other child care centers like the La Petite Academy in Santa Fe and Albuquerque are participating also, according to the state's Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

YMCA locations in New Mexico and around the country are offering free child care, too, including for nonmembers.

"We've had people stopping in," said Valerie Culver, aquatics director at the YMCA of El Paso, Texas, which serves neighboring areas in southern New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. "They just have to fill out a little bit of paperwork, drop their kid off, and go get the vaccine."

Wildfires Smolder Across Dry, Drought-Stricken SouthwestAssociated Press

Firefighters gained a toehold Wednesday on a massive wildfire in Arizona, one of several burning across the Southwest in states facing dry heat and drought conditions.

The so-called Telegraph Fire burning south of Superior, about 60 miles east of Phoenix, went overnight from no containment to 21% contained, fire officials said in a news release.

More than 750 firefighters conducted burnout operations through the night to protect structures, including electric utilities and highway infrastructure. Overseen by the Southwest Type 1 Incident Management Team, crews will now focus on establishing a fire line along the Highway 60 corridor and in the Pinal Mountains.

The blaze, which has spread through Pinal and Gila counties, has burned more than 125 square miles.

Thousands of residents across Globe, Miami and smaller communities have been stuck in various stages of the evacuation process.

At least 2,500 homes in Gila County have been evacuated, Carl Melford, the county emergency manager, said Tuesday. He estimated that there were twice as many households in the "set" mode with bags packed just in case.

Meanwhile, in Pinal County, Superior residents remain in "set" mode while hundreds were evacuated from the community of Top-Of-The-World.

Among the properties destroyed was a second home near the Globe-Miami area that belonged to Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers.

The fire also forced closures on most highways leading out of town. However, US 70 between Globe and Fort Thomas reopened Wednesday.

The blaze was first reported Friday and is believed to be human-caused.

Firefighters on another wildfire several miles east made significant progress Wednesday with 33% containment. The so-called Mescal Fire southeast of Globe forced residents of three communities to evacuate. But around 150 residents from Soda Canyon and Coyote Flats communities were allowed to return home.

In New Mexico, crews also were fighting blazes, including one that was sparked by lightning three weeks ago in the Gila National Forest. It has charred more than 71 square miles and has forced the closure of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and much of the surrounding wilderness.

While fire restrictions have been in place for New Mexico's forests since earlier this spring, some cities recently opted for fireworks restrictions ahead of the July 4th holiday. They are citing elevated fire danger as hot and dry conditions persist across the region.

Residents in New Mexico's largest city woke up Wednesday to find Albuquerque once again shrouded in smoke from the fires in Arizona. The yellow haze stretched up the Rio Grande Valley and obscured views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Utah, mired in extreme drought, was facing multiple wildfires Wednesday. The largest blaze is one that started Tuesday near the town of Price that was about 3 square miles as of Wednesday morning, according to the Utah fire information website run by state and federal agencies.

Gov. Spencer Cox said this was the state's worst drought in decades and announced a fireworks bans for all state lands and unincorporated private lands to reduce the risk of wildfires.

Alert Warns Of Poor Air Quality Due To Smoke From WildfiresAssociated Press

Residents of western and central New Mexico are being warned that air quality is being diminished by large amounts of smoke from wildfires in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

An air quality alert issued Wednesday by the National Weather Service said the reduced air quality likely would continue through the day and redevelop overnight into Thursday morning.

Cities in the alert area include Albuquerque and Gallup.

People who should stay indoors include those with conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease as well as people over age 65, young children and pregnant women, the advisory said.

It also said the reduced air quality means that people infected with COVID-19 could have more severe reactions.

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Program issued a similar health alert for Wednesday and much of Thursday.

Man Accused Of Causing Delta Flight Diversion Ordered HeldAssociated Press

A man accused of trying to break into the cockpit of a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Nashville, causing its diversion last Friday to Albuquerque, has been ordered to remain in custody pending further hearings.

Asiel Christian Norton, 43, of Venice, California, made an initial appearance Tuesday in federal court in Albuquerque on a charge of interference with flight crew and attendants, according to court records and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

A criminal complaint submitted by an FBI agent said Norton during the flight pounded on the cockpit door and said "we need to land this plane" before he was restrained by a flight attendant and passengers and then carried to the rear of the plane.

The flight attendant, who was not identified, said Norton didn't appear to be intoxicated and wasn't served alcohol during the flight, the complaint said.

There was no reported injury.

Angelica Hall, a federal public defender assigned to represent Norton, did not immediately respond Wednesday to an emailed request for comment on the allegations.

If convicted, Norton could face up to 20 years in prison, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.

US Senator Weighs In On New Mexico Stream Access Fight - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich is weighing in on a long-running dispute in New Mexico over public access to rivers and streams that flow through private property.

The Democratic lawmaker is taking aim at a rule adopted by the state Game Commission in 2018 that gives landowners the ability to petition state wildlife officials to certify waters on private property as "non-navigable" and prohibit public access without written permission.

The commission is scheduled to consider a handful of landowner applications at a special meeting June 18. Heinrich is asking that those applications be denied.

In a letter sent to the commission, Heinrich said that the New Mexico Supreme Court decades ago ruled that small streams in the state are fishing streams to which the public has access as long as people do not trespass on private property along the banks of those waterways.

"This rule leaves no room for the commission to give wealthy landowners control over every stream, river and watercourse in New Mexico," he wrote.

In a petition filed with the state Supreme Court last year, a coalition of outdoor groups argued that it's not up to the commission to determine whether waterways should be classified as "non-navigable" because water policy and law are beyond its scope.

The groups maintain that the New Mexico Constitution specifies that the unappropriated water of every stream in the state belongs to the public and whether a river or stream is navigable makes no difference.

The court has not yet ruled on the groups' request to invalidate the commission's non-navigable rule.

Public access laws vary widely across the western U.S. states. In Montana, courts over the years have expanded the public's right to use steams that cross private land. But access is prohibited in Colorado without the landowners' permission.

Next week's special meeting in New Mexico was prompted by a federal court ruling that called for the commission to take action on the applications. The court noted that the commission has the discretion to accept, reject or take any other action to resolve the applications.

Heinrich said if the applications are denied, landowners or the commission would not be prohibited from trying to force a change in law to restrict access.

Several of the state's attorneys general also have issued opinions on the matter over the years.

Most recently, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas' office sent a letter to the commission in 2019 that concluded any language in the rule that attempted to prohibit access to the public waters was unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Plans Expansion Project At New SiteSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Officials at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe have announced plans to build a facility large enough to fill an entire city block.

The new 54,000-square-foot museum will be built on the site of a former Safeway grocery store, which is currently occupied by the museum's Education Center and Prima Title, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. It is estimated to cost $60 million.

Museum officials are expected to announce the plan publicly this week at an online neighborhood notification meeting required by the city for certain construction projects. The expansion project has been in the works since the museum opened in 1997, but the expansion evolved into relocation in recent years.

Museum Director Cody Hartley said the existing museum will become an annex, but officials could later decide to not use the current building.

"The organization has grown and grown and grown, and our facility has not kept up," Hartley said. "This future building will sustain us for years."

Hartley said he hopes to pull demolition permits by the end of the year, with design work taking up most of 2022. Construction is expected to begin shortly after, with a possible opening date in 2024.

The museum opened in 1997 with 40 O'Keeffe paintings. It obtained additional paintings in 2006 from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.

"This little museum had to prove itself so that museums could trust us with their works," said Hartley, who joined the museum in 2013 and became its director in 2019. "Now we are a leading American museum, internationally known and highly regarded for our expertise. We are among the smallest accredited museums by the American Alliance of Museums."

Gluckman Tang Architects of New York City designed the original Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and was also tasked with presenting a design for the new museum. Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architects of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the landscape architect, and Thinc Design of New York is the exhibit design firm.

"We have been quietly working away," Hartley said. "We haven't made any huge announcements."

Forecasters Warn Of Hot Temperatures For New MexicoAssociated Press

Forecasters with the National Weather Service said Tuesday that New Mexico is in for a stretch of hot weather.

They warned that a heat advisory may be needed for parts of eastern New Mexico from Roswell up to Clovis and Tucumcari later this week. Temperatures across the plains are expected to reach the triple digits while parts of the Rio Grande Valley will see highs well into the 90s.

An upper level pressure system is to blame for the high temperatures, but forecasters say a front that is expected to push into the state could bring with it thunderstorms and moisture for the weekend and take the edge off the heat wave.

New Mexico also was inundated with smoke from wildfires burning in neighboring Arizona. Air quality advisories were issued Monday and Tuesday due to the haze that was blanketing parts of the state.

Biden Nominee For Public Lands Boss Faces GOP Opposition - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

President Joe Biden's nominee to oversee vast expanses of U.S. public lands was criticized Tuesday by Republicans over her past involvement in partisan politics as a longtime Democratic aide and environmentalist, underscoring the importance lawmakers assign to a relatively small agency with broad influence over energy development and agriculture in western states.

Senate confirmation of Tracy Stone-Manning to direct the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would mark a stark change from the government's catering to oil and gas interests under former President Donald Trump.

It would take every Senate Republican plus at least one Democratic lawmaker to block her nomination. So far no Democratic defectors have emerged.

The land bureau has been in staffing turmoil after four years without a confirmed director and losing nearly 300 employees to retirement or resignation after its headquarters was relocated from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Interior Department officials confirmed Tuesday that only three workers ultimately relocated to Grand Junction. The revelation, first reported by the media outlet Colorado Newsline, marks the latest example of the heavy toll on the federal workforce from a broad reorganization of federal agencies under Trump, which left agencies hobbled as they regulated industry and conducted climate research.

With roughly 9,000 employees, the land bureau has jurisdiction over 245 million acres of federally owned land in Western states, managing them for uses ranging from fossil fuel extraction, renewable power development and grazing, to recreation and wilderness.

Before joining the National Wildlife Federation four years ago, Stone-Manning worked as chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and supported him through his failed attempt to unseat Montana Sen. Steve Daines.

During a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Republicans lambasted her role as treasurer and board member of the environmental group Montana Conservation Voters, which ran ads against Daines. The Republicans also raised concerns she would impede energy development.

"You've been incredibly partisan in your past," said Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. "It seems like from your heart, you really don't care for Republicans."

Stone-Manning, from Missoula in western Montana, said her deceased Republican parents would be "rolling in their graves" over the allegation of partisanship. She indicated she wanted to move on from the 2020 election and said working in a collaborative manner was the only way to make progress in the West's contentious public lands debates.

"Elections can be tough. I was supporting my former boss, Gov. Bullock. But the election is over, and I will honor the outcome of that election," she said.

Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper asked Stone-Manning about the headquarters relocation, saying the move was "done in haste" and let down employees of the land bureau and the city of Grand Junction, which hoped for an economic boost.

Stone-Manning said the Interior Department was reviewing the issue but gave no further details. Interior officials were unable to immediately say how many positions at the Grand Junction office remain unfilled.

At the National Wildlife Federation Stone-Manning led the group's efforts to preserve public lands in the West for wildlife, hiking, hunting and other nonindustrial uses.

She was previously an aide to Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and worked for a nonprofit group that pushed the clean up one of the country's largest contaminated Superfund sites, Montana's Clark Fork River.

Tester introduced Stone-Manning at Tuesday's hearing and rejected the GOP description of her as an ideologue.

"She is a good person with a good heart who understands the value of our public lands," Tester said.

Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall questioned Stone-Manning on whether she had a conflict of interest in receiving a personal loan of $50,000 to $100,000 in 2008 while working on Tester's staff. Financial disclosure filings showed she received the 12-year loan from Missoula developer Stuart Goldberg at a 6% interest rate, which Marshall said was below the 11 % going rate for consumer loans at that time.

Stone-Manning responded that she had been "smacked by the recession and a friend loaned us some money to make sure we could get through."

"We honored the loan," she added.

The land management bureau's director post went unfilled for four years under Trump, who instead relied on a string of acting directors to execute a loosening of restrictions on industry. Chief among them was conservative lawyer William Perry Pendley, who before he took the position advocated for selling off federal lands.

Pendley was ordered removed by a federal judge after leading the bureau for more than year without required Senate confirmation and getting sued by Bullock.

Stone-Manning backed the effort to oust Pendley and said he was an illegal appointee.

She would serve under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico who was confirmed over opposition from Republicans citing her criticisms of the oil and gas industry.

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