Home News Local News Senate OKs bill allowing more stringent environmental rules

Senate OKs bill allowing more stringent environmental rules

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, speaks during an April 2019 meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women. Pirtle, along with 14 other Senate Republicans, voted against a bill that would allow the state and some local boards to adopt standards governing air quality and hazardous waste more stringent than those set by the federal government. (Daily Record File Photo)

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Senate Republicans oppose measure, which now heads to NM House

A bill that would allow the state to adopt environmental rules more stringent than those set by the federal government passed the New Mexico Senate Friday.

The Democratic-led Senate approved Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) 23-15. State Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, voted with all Republicans who were present for the floor vote against the proposal. It now heads to the New Mexico House of Representatives for consideration.

SB 8 would alter existing state statute to allow New Mexico, through its Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) and some other entities, specifically the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Quality Control Board, to make rules pertaining to air quality and hazardous waste.

Current New Mexico law prohibits the state from adopting standards that are more strict than those handed down by the federal government.

Before any such state or local rule could take effect, the EIB or a local board considering the matter must come to the conclusion — after public hearings and through substantial evidence — that such a change would better protect public health and the environment than those set by the federal government.

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When speaking about the bill, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, a sponsor of SB 8, said it would give New Mexico the right to set its own standards, reducing regulatory uncertainty when there is a change of presidential administrations.

“So the gist of Senate Bill 8 is to put New Mexico in charge of environmental protection rather than relying on the federal government to set that policy,” he said. “Federal regulations should be the baseline and not the ceiling.”

Wirth added that federal law enables states to create their own environmental rules, and the authority in the bill would give New Mexico an avenue to address some of its unique environmental challenges.

Some proponents of the bill said such changes could help address issues in the Albuquerque area such as “brown clouds” from air pollution or the storage of waste materials in faulty containers.

Republicans though cited the bill as an example of lawmakers from the more populous and metropolitan parts of the state making policy without regard for the rest of New Mexico, especially the more rural and sparsely populated areas where the oil and gas industry has a significant presence.

“We just have to make sure there is fairness here because there is a different attitude in Santa Fe on some things than there is in the rest of the state,” State Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said.

State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, stated the Legislature in the 1970s passed a law barring the EIB from enacting standards more stringent then federal standards after a court ruling determined they overstepped their power.

Kernan added she is worried SB 8 will let the EIB make rules that could overburden the oil and gas industry, a crucial source of revenue for the state.

“And we are going to have many of these companies move to Texas or simply shut down,” she said.

Two amendments were proposed to the bill by Senate Republicans.

One by state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, would have allowed individual counties, through passage of a resolution by their county commissions, to opt out of any stricter state and local standards and instead follow federal rules.

“I trust the county commissioners of Lea County more than I trust the bureaucrats right here in Santa Fe,” he said. The amendment was defeated 21-16.

State Sen. Ortiz Y Pino, D-Albuquerque, in responding to the amendment, said that air does not stay within one county — that air from counties with less stringent rules will also impact those in neighboring counties who have more rigorous standards.

“So, I really think it is impossible, I think, for one county to adopt regulations that don’t affect anyone in surrounding areas, and possibly the entire state,” he said.

Another amendment, sponsored by state Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, also failed 21-16 to garner sufficient support. Sharer’s amendment would prevent a rule from taking effect if it is determined to be a standard that is not achievable through current technologies.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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