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Environmental lawsuits bill draws criticism

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A bill that would allow private citizens to file civil suits alleging violations of state environmental rules is headed for a committee vote this weekend – and has garnered opposition from the business community.

House Bill 50, sponsored by Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, amends the Oil and Gas Act and other state environmental laws to enable private citizens to file civil lawsuits against businesses and other entities that may be violating the terms of their permits. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the measure Saturday afternoon.

Ben Shelton, political and policy director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the bill would give people who have been harmed by environmental malpractice the ability to take direct legal action.

“In New Mexico, it’s really easy to see human impacts of pollution,” Shelton said. “So having something that allows people some legal recourse to address environmental harms in their community under all these state statutes would be a big leap forward.”

However, Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said the measure would create an uncertain regulatory environment, which could deter companies from investing in the state.

“New Mexico is already not seen as a great place to do business,” Black said.

The bill would provide legal standing for individuals who have been harmed, economically or otherwise, by entities that are subject to or regulated by the Oil and Gas Act and four other environmental laws.

For example, Shelton said companies that dump more than their permitted levels of pollutants could be subject to a civil suit under the measure. That would give New Mexicans the ability to stop bad actors without relying on state agencies, he said.

Black said he’s concerned the bill creates an environment where companies, which are already regulated by state environmental laws, face a slew of lawsuits that stymie development. He said New Mexico routinely ranks toward the bottom of lists ranking state business climates, and said these lists help inform where businesses look to locate and expand operations.

Having a law that leaves developers subject to civil suits will discourage companies from moving to and growing in New Mexico, making it harder to recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“This legislative session should be all about, how do we come out of COVID and position ourselves to grow our economy and diversify,” Black said. “And this bill … is the exact opposite of that.”

Black added that the bill could negatively impact alternative energy development, including wind turbine manufacturing and transmission lines for renewable energy.

“It’s going to be collateral damage to every industry,” he said.

Shelton disagreed, noting that plaintiffs have to show that they’ve been harmed by the violations. Winning a suit could result in a temporary or permanent injunction, along with “reasonable costs” for attorney fees, rather than substantial monetary penalties, Shelton said.

“There’s no getting rich off of this,” Shelton said.

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