Tale of Two Bills
New Mexicans rally for a national energy bill that promotes environmental responsibility
By Christie Chisholm
Dave Cargo is a man who believes in tradition. Old-fashioned conservatism, as he calls it, is the backbone to his political ideology, which he defines as: fiscal balance, civil rights and environmental responsibility. The Republican ex-governor touted his philosophy last week in front of a quiet, supportive audience. "If you're conservative, you want to conserve," he said, eyes ablaze behind his familiar black-framed glasses, as he spoke to the standards for drilling operations in the U.S. "If they want to do some more drilling, I've got an ideal place—they can start with every golf course in America—and they won't have a lot of people cheering them on."
Cargo, who held office in New Mexico from 1967-1971 and who implemented a series of environmental laws during his term, was one of the featured speakers at a press conference last week held at La Posada, intended to present bipartisan support to Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman for their version of the energy bill currently in conference committee in Washington, D.C. The Domenici/Bingaman version, Senate Bill 10, is the culmination of over five years of effort on the part of the senators to attempt to settle on a comprehensive national energy policy, something which has been absent in the U.S. since the '70s. The event, hosted by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance among other organizations, focused on asking the senators to stand strong behind their bill and not cave in to certain provisions offered in the House version of the energy bill, House Bill 6, while trying to mesh the two together into a final plan.
Not a lot of people have heard about the pending energy bill, despite the fact that it could have a considerable impact on environmental and energy policies nationwide. The bill has the potential to dramatically affect New Mexico in particular, because our state's energy production ranks fifth in the nation and we have a vast amount of natural gas and oil as well as sunshine and open space to produce solar and wind power. With good legislation, the state has the promise to be developed in a way that could make it the national leader in renewable energy; with bad legislation, there is the likelihood that it could stagnate.
The plan is also vital to any hope that the country has of becoming independent from foreign oil and bypassing a looming national energy crisis. Yet the Senate and House bills bear markedly different traits, and bringing the two branches together to decide on a final version could be tricky.
The Senate bill, approved by a vote of 85-12 in late June, is more environmentally-friendly than the House bill, and focuses on renewable energy, something conspicuously absent in the House version. The Senate bill would channel 40 percent of some $18 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to boost renewable energy sources such as wind and biomass, as well as try to reduce energy consumption through tax incentives for efficient appliances, homes and gas-electric hybrid cars. The House bill, on the other hand, approved in April and supported by Rep. Heather Wilson, includes provisions that some argue would grant oil and gas companies exemptions from environmental laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Cargo, for instance, along with former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca, William Wiley of the National Republicans for Environmental Protection and Oscar Simpson, an avowed Republican and president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, who were also speakers at last week's event, all said the House provisions are nothing more than the result of oil and gas companies attempting to skirt environmental responsibility and they worry the specific provisions will slip into the final bill.
Still, Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the provisions are only aimed at streamlining drilling operations to make them more efficient, and his industry has no intention of bypassing environmental laws.
Two of the provisions, sections 837 and 327, would prohibit hydraulic fracturing fluids (which include toxic chemicals such as diesel) from being considered pollutants for drinking water. Sections 830 and 328 would exempt oil and gas companies from "stormwater" requirements, meaning they wouldn't be required to prevent runoff around drilling sites from seeping into groundwater, among other things. Section 2055 would exempt some drilling and energy practices from federal oversight, thereby ignoring NEPA regulations. For instance, well pads that take up less than five acres would skip the standard review process, along with wells added to sites where drilling has already taken place. Section 2027 would allow oil and gas companies up to two years to complete drilling permit application requirements, while shortening the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) time to review and rule on applications from 30 days down to 10 days.
Gallagher, however, said the provisions are misleading in that most of them would not change existing laws, but merely enforce laws and prevent them from being tampered with in the near future. For instance, he said hydraulic fracturing fluids are already not considered pollutants for drinking water and the oil and gas industry was exempted from stormwater requirements in 1988. He mentioned he had not heard of any provisions that would exempt the industry from NEPA requirements. Gallagher added that he thinks the House bill is lacking in some regards, mainly in that it ignores renewable energy. He said he would like to see a thoughtful melding of the two bills, which would take both the renewable and oil and gas industries into consideration.
"We have got to make renewable energy available, affordable and reliable," he said, stressing that the oil and gas industry is sensitive to environmental responsibility and that it is aware that it must coexist with the renewable industry in order to promote a healthy economy. “When we do, we will become independent from foreign oil. Our people live here, our people's kids go to school here. ... The environment needs to be protected."
But Nathan Newcomer, media director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the oil and gas industry is anything but environmentally conscious and they don't need any more help in avoiding responsibility. "With these laws they could just throw pollutants on the ground and not have to answer to anyone," he said.
Meanwhile, Senators Domenici and Bingaman both say they will stand firmly behind their bill. Jude McCartin, Bingaman's spokesperson, said the senator would "fight to have the final bill as close as possible to the Senate version." Chris Gallegos, Domenici's spokesperson, echoed the position. Whatever the outcome, the public won't have to wait for answers much longer; the president has asked to see the final version of the bill before the August recess. Whether or not the committee will make that deadline is yet to be seen.
All parties seem hopeful that a thoughtful, bipartisan and thorough energy bill will emerge from the committee. Cargo said that it's about time. "The U.S.'s [current policy] is cheap food and energy; we don't care how we get it. But that's not a policy; it's an attitude. We need a national energy policy that's eclectic and makes sense."
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