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Sacred places, air need protection from drilling

Few would argue that energy development is incredibly important to New Mexico’s economic landscape. Royalties from energy help fund our state’s budget and allow us to keep tax levels low.

As an advocate for tribes, I have always been a strong supporter of the rights of sovereign, tribal governments to develop energy for the benefit of their people. As a member of Jemez Pueblo, this issue is important to me because my district includes large portions of Northwest New Mexico where energy development is happening.

Therefore, it is my duty to be a voice for the taxpayers in my part of the state.

Economics of the industry aside, there is one truth that is inescapable, and that is this: There are some places, such as the Chaco Canyon region in my district, that are far too precious for development. Our Pueblo ancestors built the structures of Chaco, and to this day we hold these areas sacred and maintain a significant spiritual connection to them. We should all be rallying to protect this World Heritage Site.

This was the primary driver behind an April 2014 resolution by the All Pueblo Council of Governors demanding the sacred places be protected from the threat of oil and gas development.

In addition to protecting our sacred landmarks, taxpayers and tribal governments should also be protected from practices that take revenue from our coffers. Currently, tribal governments and taxpayers in New Mexico are losing out on millions of dollars they are owed because of the massive amount of oil and gas flaring and venting taking place. Sadly, royalties are often not paid when the companies flare off oil and gas into the atmosphere.

A recent report showed that New Mexico taxpayers have lost out on an estimated $42.7 million in royalty revenue since 2009. Further, estimates suggest that as much as 90 percent of the natural gas being wasted could be captured or put to use.

For example, the natural gas lost in 2012 could have heated every single home in the state through a typical December and January. That is an enormous amount of waste of a publicly owned resource that cannot be replaced.

New Mexico has engaged in this practice more than almost all the other energy states combined. In fact, nearly 45 percent of all the Bureau of Land Management applications to flare royalty free in the entire United States in 2014 came from New Mexico. Some have indicated this increase in flaring has led to the huge methane plume recently discovered by NASA over the Four Corners.

It is for these reasons I have sponsored Senate Memorial 29 asking the departments of Finance and Administration, Indian Affairs, Environment, and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources to investigate the economic, environmental and cultural impact of this practice in an effort to ensure that when we develop energy, we do it responsibly.

This memorial proposes the following: that oil and gas never be developed in areas near sacred sites or close to irreplaceable water resources; and that oil and gas companies and the BLM ensure that New Mexico taxpayers and tribes are fairly compensated for resources that are flared off.

Some may say the industry has too many regulations. I am willing to have that argument. But I know that Colorado recently instituted rules related to flaring activity and actually created jobs in the sector, with companies looking to capture and use resources that otherwise would have been flared into the atmosphere.

Properly grappling with this issue could be a positive for all – taxpayers, tribes and even the industry. Let’s have that discussion.