When Republican Susana Martinez was elected to succeed two-term Democrat Bill Richardson as governor of New Mexico, voters knew they were getting a conservative budget-slasher who declared the Land of Enchantment is “open for business.”
But the Susana Martinez administration New Mexicans ended up with was a little cozier with the oil and gas industry and more skeptical of climate change and renewable energy programs than many expected.
On her first day on the job, Martinez issued an executive order halting the publication of all pending state rules and regulations, including a greenhouse gas emissions regulation and another rule restricting wastewater discharge from dairies. Environmentalists sued, and in late January the New Mexico Supreme Court overruled Martinez, saying she is not above the law. Following the court’s decision, the rules were published Jan. 31.
Then, as she insisted in her State of the State Address last month that environmental regulations be based on “sound science — not political ideology,” she appointed climate change skeptic and former Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt as her cabinet secretary overseeing the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. (CLARIFICATION/UPDATE: Schmitt withdrew from the nomination for Gov. Susana Martinez’s Secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources on Feb. 10 after declining to submit to a background investigation. Martinez is currently seeking a new nominee.)
The speed with which state government has transitioned from the more conservation-minded Richardson administration to Martinez’s policies skeptical of environmental regulation has left some with a sense of whiplash.
“I suspect most New Mexicans are alarmed. I’m alarmed,” said conservationist Courtney White of Santa Fe. “This is a 180-degree reversal from the previous administration. That kind of whiplash is difficult for New Mexicans.”
The tenor of the rhetoric coming from the capitol is drastically different from the previous Republican governor, libertarian-minded Gary Johnson, Richardson’s predecessor, said Brian Shields, executive director of Taos-based conservation group Amigos Bravos.
“With Johnson, we made huge headway on certain issues he was really quite passionate about,” Shields said. “One of them was the mining industry. He was really concerned about how the mining industry came into communities and changed a sustainable agrarian community into a boom-and-bust community where you had huge swings in unemployment.”
Without Johnson, the Molycorp molybdenum mine near Questa would never have been declared an EPA Superfund site, he said.
No such concern on environmental issues has come from Martinez’s office, he said.
“The fact is, I do think she exemplifies this black-and-white attitude that’s really outdated, and it’s really going to put New Mexico way back in terms of having a good climate in which to do business,” where only polluting industries will want to set up shop in the state, he said.
Of particular interest to Martinez and Schmitt is the state’s oil and gas “Pit Rule” which Martinez said during her gubernatorial campaign is a hindrance to economic development and may have been based on invalid ideas.
The Pit Rule, approved in 2008, requires energy companies to contain oil and gas well waste water and chemicals in lined pits or tanks to prevent ground and surface water contamination.
The rule increases drilling costs for small energy producers in the state and exposes them to greater financial risk because of a more complex well permitting process and more expensive operating costs, according to a New Mexico Tech review of the rules.
Early in her campaign, Martinez wrote on her Facebook page that the Pit Rule is too burdensome for the energy industry, and told the Hobbs News-Sun in 2009 that to continue to regulate the oil and gas industry “is to regulate them out of the state.”
Martinez’s opposition to the pit rule earned her great support in the state’s business community.
“There are many, especially those in the oil and gas industry, who would believe, and we would agree with them, that overregulation in the environment is a job killer,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
Another job killer, Cole said, is the Cap and Trade Program Richardson’s Environmental Improvement Board narrowly approved in a 4-3 vote in November. The program, expected to begin in 2012, aims to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent annually. At the same time, the board also approved the rule regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
Vehemently opposed to the board’s decisions, Martinez immediately dismissed the entire board when she took office, saying the decisions were made based solely on political ideology. Right away, she appointed new members she felt were more business-friendly.
Martinez’s opposition to the Cap and Trade Program and the Pit Rule are a sign that she is willing to inject some reason into regulation in New Mexico, said Margaret McDaniel, a San Juan County commissioner and director of the San Juan Economic Development Service.
She said San Juan County saw a “perfect storm” after the Pit Rule was implemented there: The nation’s economy crashed and natural gas prices began to plummet, sending unemployment rocketing from 3.3 percent in 2008 to more than 10 percent in early 2010. In December unemployment sat at 8.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We can’t blame it all on one regulation,” but San Juan County’s oil and gas wells were economically marginal to begin with and the added expense of the Pit Rule was enough to send some energy companies packing, McDaniel said.
A CAUTIOUS LOOK AHEAD
As the Martinez administration proposes ways to shore up the state’s $450 million budget shortfall and reconsiders the future of other vestiges of Richardson’s administration — among them the commuter train service between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, film industry subsidies and domestic partner benefits for state workers — conservationists and some in the business community are cautious in their predictions about what the governor’s policies might mean for state’s business and environment over the next four years.
“We’re blessed with sunshine, open space and clean air,” said Alex. O. Romero, president of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce. “It’s too early to tell how the new governor’s policies will impact any of that.”
Shields of Amigos Bravos said he’s confident Martinez will attempt to reverse the greenhouse gas emissions and dairy waste discharge rules now that they’re officially on the books.
If Martinez is successful in reversing or repealing rules that are designed to protect the environment, it may impact residents’ health and ultimately encourage businesses to look elsewhere because of a lowered quality of life in the state, said Douglas Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which sued the state to have the greenhouse gas emissions rule published in the state register.
“I think that it is, unfortunately, likely that that regulators in state government will be substantially less friendly to the environment and to the concerns of the communities during the next four years,” he said. “I think there’s a chance at least that the administration’s enforcement of the pit rule will be less strict and less thorough.”
Daniel Lorimier, Sierra Club conservation coordinator and lobbyist for the Rio Grande Chapter, said Martinez’s hostility toward clean water and clean air regulations has inspired more volunteerism among conservationists during the current legislative session.
“I think the voters elected Gov. Martinez because she is feisty and kind of goal-oriented, she wants to change the direction of New Mexico policy,” Lorimier said. “I think they thought that’s where they wanted to see the state go. Happily, her election has inspired quite a bit of interest in volunteerism in folks who believe in climate change and folks who believe the regulations we’ve adopted are common sense regulations that don’t need to change, they need to be used.”
Calls to Martinez’s office seeking comment were not returned.
Bobby Magill can be found online at www.bobbymagill.com.