Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
A bill that would require public agencies to conduct an environmental assessment for many development projects is wending its way through the Legislature, with strong opposition from business interests and support from environmental advocates.
House Bill 206, also known as the Environmental Review Act, would mandate that state agencies in charge of leasing, permitting or licensing development projects assess the environmental consequences of projects estimated to cost over $2 million.
A more detailed environmental impact statement is required if the agency determines the project “is likely to have a significant effect on the environment,” or if it is anticipated to cost $100 million or more.
When a project is proposed to occur within 15 miles of tribal land, the state agency must ask the tribal authority to participate in the analysis. The tribal authority can choose to limit its participation or decline to participate altogether. The state must also provide the authority with a notice that an environmental impact statement is being undertaken or has been completed.
Exempt from the act are law enforcement activities; mineral lease adjustments and transfers; approval of leases, easements, funds or permits for residential homebuilding; projects on tribal lands; and projects reviewed under the federal National Environmental Policy Act, among others.
The bill is an amended version after the original received a “do not pass” recommendation from the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Saturday. It now awaits a hearing in the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor in the House, said the measure is the result of about a decade of work and builds on similar legislation introduced in 2013. She said the law would help the state avert damaging and costly environmental disasters, such as a brine-well-turned-potential-sinkhole in Carlsbad that officials estimate will cost up to $43 million to remediate.
“I’m hopeful,” Chasey said. “We want to make it really clear that we have a responsibility to our citizens and to our descendants to protect our land. We’re certainly not trying to put anybody out of business or detract from the opportunities that are here.”
The bill’s Democratic sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, said she and her colleagues have had “long, detailed meetings with the industry” to create a bill that would acknowledge business concerns while protecting the environment.
But several prominent business groups have strongly objected to the measure on the grounds that the review process would delay development projects and discourage investors and new businesses.
In an email to its membership, the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry said the act would “bring to (a) halt new development in New Mexico.”
The Sandoval County Economic Alliance said the bill “could cripple the state’s economy,” and it called on members to contact legislators and voice their disapproval.
“It would deter investment, plain and simple,” Terri Cole, CEO and president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “… This kind of unnecessary and onerous regulation would certainly make us less competitive; it would delay all kinds of new construction, and it would limit the power of our closing fund to help companies relocate and grow in New Mexico.”
The bill was drafted by Judy Calman, staff attorney for the conservation organization New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, according to Calman and Chasey. Calman said a similar law exists in 15 other states. In Minnesota, she said, 97 percent of the review activities are conducted by filling out a nine-page worksheet that is quickly made available to the public.
“We just don’t think it’s that onerous,” Calman said.
To implement the changes, the bill would appropriate $500,000 for the State Land Office, $250,000 for the Department of Environment, $500,000 to the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, and $250,000 for the Office of the State Engineer.