A right to an environment free of pollution and associated dangers could be considered by New Mexico voters if the purported “green amendment” was passed by the Legislature in the upcoming session.
Such a measure failed to reach the governor’s desk in previous sessions, but lawmakers are likely to reintroduce the amendment that would create a ballot question to codify “environmental rights” into law.
That effort was being led by Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-37) of Las Cruces who argued the bill could taking meaningful action to address climate change during a Tuesday meeting of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee on which Ferrary serves as vicechair.
She was joined by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-16) of Albuquerque who planned to introduce companion legislation in the Senate.
Opponents of the legislation said it could expose New Mexico to future litigation, placing decision-making authority with the court system rather than the state administration and lawmakers.
This could also stymie industries like oil and gas or agriculture, critics argued, and add another layer of regulatory burden to activities important to New Mexico’s economy.
“The importance of passing the green amendment will allow the people of New Mexico to proactively protect our environment, communities and the state economy,” Ferrary said. “With the green amendment, we will be able to ensure that every government official in our state will work to advance proactive environmental protection at every level of the decision-making process.”
The panel shared the language of the 2023 version of the bill, intended to be introduced during the upcoming 60-day legislative session starting in January.
“The people of the state shall be entitled to clean and healthy air, water, soil and environment; a stable climate; and self-sustaining ecosystems, for the benefit of public health, safety and general welfare,” read the language that would be added to New Mexico’s Bill of Rights.
“The state shall protect these rights equitably for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, tribal membership status, socioeconomics, or geography.”
Sedillo Lopez said pollution impacted New Mexicans, specifically people of color, disproportionately and the green amendment would strengthen the state’s protections for vulnerable, low-income and minority-majority communities.
She pointed to language added to the latest version of the bill that required the state consider race and ethnicity, along with Indigenous communities and socioeconomics when making decisions that could impact the environment.
“The State of New Mexico has not taken into account environmental justice when it makes environmental decisions,” she said. “We decided that if environmental justice is so important, why don’t we just be clear in the amendment that that’s what it’s about.
“That provision will make New Mexico a leader in the environmental justice movement.”
Rep. Stefani Lord (R-22) of Sandia Park compared the green amendment bill to similar “Green New Deal” legislation in other states like New York which Lord said led to lawsuits from environmental activists.
“We’re going to open our whole state to lawsuits of what is clean,” she said. “I’m also thinking about having an unstable regulatory environment here. I’m trying to think of business that might move out of our state or not want to come to the state and invest in the state.
“There are perpetual lawsuits that I think are going to cost us tremendously.”
In response, Sedillo Lopez said all green amendment lawsuits in other states were necessary to address pollution and industrial impacts to the public.
“They all bring something important to the forefront,” she said. “What this does is provides that the government take this into account. As long as the government takes environmental rights into account, it shouldn’t have a problem.
“This is another civil right. This is going to be important litigation to help us ensure that we’re not a sacrifice zone for the country.”
Lord pressed the panel specifically about the oil and gas industry, worrying the green amendment could impeded drilling permits and reduce the ability of companies in New Mexico to produce fossil fuels – a sector that contributes about a third of the state’s budget.
“Who’s going to be the oversight for the drilling permits, and how is it going to affect the oil and gas industry in New Mexico if suddenly they can’t get permits?” she said.
“I understand there’s some situations when they shouldn’t, but what happens if they can’t get permits and we can’t pump enough oil for the nation or to supply money for our schools?”
Oil and gas companies in New Mexico were already working to reduce pollution, Sedillo Lopez said, through participation in recent rulemakings with state regulatory agencies to address emissions of methane and other air pollutants.
“I don’t anticipate the oil and gas industry would be slowed down,” she said. “They would become part of the solution.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.