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Editorial: Project review, fracking ban mean NM closed to business

It’s unfortunate a few state lawmakers appear hell-bent on hanging a “Closed for Business” sign on the state, keeping us a bottom feeder when it comes to being attractive to business.

To review, we came up 45th in the 2018 Forbes list of business-friendly states. Among our neighbors, Utah is No. 2, Texas No. 3, Colorado No. 8 and Arizona No. 17. Not surprisingly, we also rank in the bottom tier in median household income.

So the best way to address what ails us is not to tell business we don’t want them here. Yet Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, kicked off her freshman term by sponsoring SB 459, legislation that would put a four-year moratorium on new hydraulic fracturing permits – something the industry that pumped more than $2.2 billion into state coffers last year and employed thousands of New Mexicans says would be devastating. The N.M. Oil and Gas Association says virtually all new wells use fracking, the EPA under Obama found no evidence fracking had “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources,” and putting a four-year hold on new drilling kills new jobs and revenues for the state.

Sedillo Lopez, a former University of New Mexico law professor, points out the moratorium applies only to new permits and does not affect the record number now pumping. She says it would give the state time to beef up resources to enforce current drilling laws, get a grip on exactly how many permits are in place and study the impact of fracking on our water, land, air and people. As for the moratorium’s economic impact, she is still waiting for legislative staff’s Fiscal Impact Report.

Sedillo Lopez and co-sponsor Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, are right that New Mexico needs to protect its natural resources and is woefully behind in its regulatory homework. The state Oil Conservation Division is understaffed (Sedillo Lopez says eight employees are responsible for oversight of 64,000 wells) and the last state land commissioner, a Republican-turned-Libertarian, announced a year ago “the rush to make a quick buck is coming at the expense of New Mexico’s environment. Our agency and the OCD need to step up to protect our state and its lands from being damaged by the California-style gold rush happening in Southeast New Mexico.”

But it’s not in New Mexicans’ best interests to say new investment, jobs and revenue must come to a standstill while the state gets its regulatory act together. The two missions should not be mutually exclusive.

Sending the same closed-for-business notice are Sen. Mimi Stewart and Rep. Gail Chasey, both Albuquerque Democrats. Their bill requires public agencies to conduct an environmental assessment for just about any project anywhere in the state estimated to cost more than $2 million. HB 206, the Environmental Review Act, would mandate state agencies in charge of leasing, permitting or licensing development projects assess environmental consequences. Despite its 27 pages, what that means isn’t entirely clear – a climate change study for a new grocery? – but it would be in addition to local and state licensing and permitting processes in place in a state notorious for an excessive supply of red tape and multiple inspections by different bureaucracies. Business groups have expressed alarm, arguing the bill will make us less competitive, delay new construction, add unnecessary additional regulation and deter investment. The Sandoval County Economic Alliance says it would “cripple the state’s economy.” If that’s an overstatement, it’s not by much – page 13 requires reasons why a project’s effects aren’t enough to stop it.

Yes, New Mexico’s natural beauty is one of our greatest assets and must be protected. But we need an approach that not only protects our air, water and land but also spurs investment, creates jobs and allows people to pursue the dream of making a better life for themselves and their families.

These pieces of legislation, as written, do the opposite.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.