U.S. lawmakers hear call for stronger oil, gas regulations at Santa Fe hearing

There are old lessons New Mexicans should have learned about a powerful industry extracting valuable minerals from below the soil, members of the U.S. House of Representatives said Monday at a federal committee hearing in Santa Fe.

Decades ago, it was uranium. Now Democratic lawmakers say they fear oil and gas could leave a similar legacy in the state.

During the first of several congressional hearings, lawmakers, tribal leaders and environmentalists spoke about the need for stronger federal oil and gas regulations, particularly the importance of protecting Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the greater Chaco region from lasting degradation.

Last week, New Mexico Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland helped co-sponsor the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, a bill that would block more than 316,000 acres around Chaco Canyon from oil, gas and other mineral extraction. While numerous people at the hearing said they would support the proposed legislation, Republicans maintain control of the Senate, and President Donald Trump has consistently taken executive action to boost the fossil fuel industry, making the Democratic initiative less likely to succeed in Washington.

Haaland said that after touring Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Sunday, she was reminded of her home pueblo, Laguna, and the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine there, which is now a Superfund clean-up site.

“We are still feeling the effects of that on our people,” Haaland said.

The congresswoman said she was shocked to see plumes of methane through infrared cameras in the Four Corners region, polluting what otherwise seemed like clear skies. She said she saw torn-up roads, residents reliant on inhalers to breathe, and impoverished communities, some lacking running water, surrounding extraction wells.

“When the uranium mining company came to Laguna and said, ‘We want to open this mine on your land, and everybody will have money and it will be a great thing’ — did we know, were we able to ask the right questions of those companies?” she said.

She recalled how Native miners inhaled radioactive dust without having protective masks. Generational homes were abandoned because of contamination or demolished to make way for development. And the people made sick — often from Native and lower-income communities — rarely were compensated for illnesses or cultural destruction.

“In hindsight, would we have allowed the largest uranium mine to open on Laguna? I think that people would think twice about that. … We paid dearly in social issues and our environment.”

Haaland was joined by Luján, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and Energy and Mineral Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., in the state Capitol for the first of several national hearings by a subcommittee.

More than 100 people packed the hearing, which spanned four hours as the representatives questioned tribal leaders, state officials, environmental experts, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on what should be done to create better regulation and accountability of the fossil fuel industry.

“Our discussion of Chaco cannot be separated from our discussion of home,” said Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo. Much of the development proposed for the greater Chaco region has been done without proper study, he said, and the federal government has rarely offered more than lip service with regard to tribal consultation. Without this input, the government has little understanding of the true cultural or spiritual value of much of the land in the region, Vallo said — nor the full impact of mineral extraction there.

The hearings come amid an industry boom centered in New Mexico and Texas and as federal and state policies come to a head on the future of methane regulation. The Trump administration has made strides in stalling and repealing Obama-era methane policies that would have required companies to report emissions and reducing venting practices. The current administration also has escalated the pace of leasing on public lands, even when the rest of the federal government was shut down during a budget showdown in Washington.

However, at the state level, Lujan Grisham has introduced a number of clean energy initiatives, including joining California and Hawaii in pledging that New Mexico will achieve a 100 percent carbon-free electrical power grid by 2050. She has also established a climate change task force and instructed her Cabinet to study a framework for state-level methane regulations.

The move positions New Mexico to be among the top leaders on climate issues, as well as top oil producers, in the nation.

When asked what the federal government should be doing to reduce emissions on public lands, the governor responded, “Everything.” She said the state is overburdened and has limited regulatory authority but acknowledged the fundamental contributions the oil and gas industry makes to New Mexico’s budget. She said industry representatives have been willing participants in talking about regulations.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, said in an emailed statement that comments at Monday’s field hearing presented a skewed version of industry development. She said oil and gas companies comply with federal cultural preservation laws.

Sarah Cottrell Propst, secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which oversees oil and gas projects, testified that her department is significantly understaffed and under former Gov. Susana Martinez saw its funding cut by 44 percent since fiscal year 2015, the same period in which the number of permits skyrocketed.

The state also is seeing record methane emissions, according to a study released last week by the Environmental Defense Fund, likely five times higher than the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate. The study found more than 1 million metric tons of methane were released in 2017 — and capturing these emissions would amount to $275 million in revenue or $43 million in additional tax revenues for New Mexico.

“Across the American West,” said Lowenthal, who chairs the subcommittee, “the availability of oil and gas has been both a blessing and a curse.”

By:  Rebecca Moss
Source: Santa Fe New Mexican