Mining the Law
An interview with Pete Domenici Jr., attorney for industry
Almost 42 percent of New Mexico is owned by the feds, according to the U.S. General Services Administration. Our state has been shaped by national laboratories, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Department of Defense energy facilities.
Federal activities—along with mining and ranching—fall under the broad category of environmental law, says Pete Domenici Jr.
He’s been in the field for 25 years. His interest was sparked in law school at UNM in the ’80s by water rights and what he calls "Western law." He defines it as issues surrounding the development of the West. These days, that includes urban encroachment on land, resources and traditional culture.
He took a break from his law practice in 2010 to run for governor as a Republican. Opponents criticized his record: How could he call himself an environmental steward when he's represented some of the state's biggest polluters? His father was also a big proponent of nuclear energy as a U.S. senator.
For Domenici Jr., it's a question of balance: "You start with the premise that the reality is that human beings will affect their environment when resources are developed," he says. "So as a society we have to figure out ways to protect the environment while allowing population growth and economic growth to occur."
Some of the high-profile environmental cases Domenici works on get lots of attention from activists. He represented the Department of Energy in permit modifications for the WIPP site and Los Alamos National Laboratory in a hazardous waste permit hearing.
He's worked for farmers, ranchers, dairies, mining companies and other corporations that often end up on the target list of environmental groups. But, he says, don’t judge too quickly through any particular ideological lens. The people he represents "really do have a sense of caretaking or ownership and concern for the resources they impact,” he says. “They have to interface with those resources to make a living, and because of that, they have really unique concerns and understandings of how to protect—and in many cases how to enhance—those resources.”
For example, he says, some ranchers who lease federal land try to remove non-native plant species and take other measures to improve water quality and habitat. That benefits the area overall, "not just their cattle or their livestock,” he says. People need to eat, and how farms and ranches operate long term is an environmental issue.
Domenici says there has been a metamorphosis in the attitudes of extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas over the last 25 years. “They have come around to understanding that it is in their own best interest to take care of the resources," he says. "It ends up giving them more opportunities, more flexibility. That allows their operations to be more successful." It's an enlightened form of self-interest, he adds, which can lead to sensible regulation.
Industrial projects have better relationships with their communities these days, too, he says. Good Neighbor Agreements—environmental protection deals made between businesses and nearby residents—are becoming standard around the country. “If you are going to build a mine, before you even start it, you contract with that community on what you are going to do to protect that community, to protect the resources of the community,” he says. “For a lot of these companies, that is the best way to give their project a chance for success. And it ends up being a win-win for all sides.”
Along with his bird’s-eye view of environmental issues in the state, Domenici’s been working on a planning degree over the last few years. Isolated pollution incidents, such as the substantial Kirtland spill, are important but don't have nearly as much impact as growth, he says.
The Middle Rio Grande Valley from Cochiti to Socorro is about to explode in population. “We have five major land developments surrounding Albuquerque,” he points out. There's ever-expanding Rio Rancho, as well as the planned communities of Mesa Del Sol, SunCal, Valley Improvements and Huning Ranch.
Each of those areas has the potential to add 50,000 or more people to the state's population. But the planning doesn’t cross county lines, he says. “We were looking at potentially adding a quarter million people or more with the same resource base we have now and no coordinated infrastructure."
And, of course, in the desert, growth brings up concerns about water. “I think the region's water situation has improved dramatically with two things: increased conservation and the San Juan Chama project."
But he adds that the San Juan Chama project is not going to provide for future expansion of Rio Rancho and won't help Valencia County. “The real challenge is: How are we going to get reliable water for those communities, and how that will affect everyone else up and down the river?" Conservation is key, he says.
We'll also see a decrease in agriculture: Economics and a scarcity of resources will inevitably convert the use of the land.
Regional and statewide planning, he says, should be a major part of political discussions. Domenici notes that we are all in this together, and sensible regulations based on science should reflect the realities of human industry. More planning, he finishes, whether it happens at the rancher’s kitchen table or the mining company’s field trailer, can only help preserve the wise use of natural resources.