Monday, September 27, 2010

NM cap and trade plan stirs debate

SANTA FE (AP) - After driving more than 200 miles, Matt Hinkle of Roswell hobbled down the auditorium walkway to the front of the nearly empty room. He jostled the chairs around to make room for his crutches and then laid out his opposition to a pair of proposals aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in New Mexico.
"From what I can see," he told a panel of state regulators, "the public in the state of New Mexico doesn't have a clue. ... They are completely uninformed as to what's going on. Really, in the end, they're going to be the ones paying for it."
The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board is considering two proposals — one from an environmental group and the other from the state Environment Department. The state's plan calls for a regional cap-and-trade program, and New Energy Economy wants to limit the emissions of the state's largest polluters — coal-fired power plants and the oil and gas industry.
While supporters say something needs to be done to combat climate change, critics are asking what cap and trade will end up costing New Mexico, a rural state where oil and gas contributes millions to state coffers, where small communities depend on mom-and-pop businesses and where a love for the land is shared by everyone from ranchers and environmentalists to Gov. Bill Richardson.
It's up to the seven board members to sift through days of testimony and 6,000 pages of documents before deciding whether carbon regulations can be woven into New Mexico's economic and cultural fabric.
The board is in the middle of a two-week hearing in Santa Fe on the state's proposal.
"It's a lot of work, but we take this seriously," board chairwoman Gay Dillingham said.
New Mexico's power plants and the oil and gas industry pump about 24 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the air each year. The state aims to curb the emissions of those that emit 25,000 metric tons or more, which roughly equals the annual emissions of 5,000 cars.
State officials say 63 facilities would fall under the rule, but that number could grow, as the Environment Department says it would eventually look to expand the scope of sources and emissions to account for industrial, commercial and residential buildings as well as transportation fuels.
Jim Norton, director of the department's Environmental Protection Division, said this is the first step to getting a handle on New Mexico's emissions.
"We have a serious problem that were facing in New Mexico and the world," Norton said. "In New Mexico, we're looking at hotter temperatures, reduced snowpack, more forest fires, less water in our streams and health impacts. The effects are just really severe and in a dry state like New Mexico, we're going to get hit harder."
But Hinkle and other critics argue that New Mexico's emissions are only a fraction of the global problem and that handicapping the state's businesses with another regulation could prove economically disastrous.
Armies of lawyers from all sides have been debating the economics for much of the week. State experts contend coal and refining industries would be negatively impacted but the overall cost to New Mexico's economy would be very small if the board approved the cap-and-trade plan.
Attorneys for the opposition tried to poke holes in the economists' predictions.
"A big question mark is what it is in terms of the true impacts on the state," said Karin Foster, an attorney for the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico.
Both Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state's largest electric utility, and Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., which provides power to rural co-ops, say there will be costs to comply with the proposed regulations and those costs will have to be passed on to customers.
Officials in more than a dozen rural counties along the New Mexico-Arizona border are also concerned about the potential impacts.
"We keep putting these burdens on our rural communities, on agriculture, on mining, on our productive sectors in this state, and we're going to break their backs and everything that the urban consumer depends on is either going to disappear or skyrocket in price, from food to electricity," said Howard Hutchison of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties For Stable Economic Growth.
"There's a lot riding on it," he said.
Dozens of environmental groups and New Mexico residents who have testified on behalf of the proposals agree that this is an important issue. They say industry is overreacting and that regulators need to take steps to mitigate public health concerns and environmental degradation from unchecked pollution.
Judy Williams, a Santa Fe resident and member of the League of Women Voters, urged regulators to protect New Mexico's blue skies for future generations.
"Business as usual is not sustainable," she said.
Supporters also say this is New Mexico's chance to be a leader, something Richardson has pushed for since rolling out his emissions reduction goals in
2005. Even though climate legislation has stalled on the federal level, department experts testified that other states are also considering some form of climate regulations.
Farmington City Councilor Jason Sandel said he's worried New Mexico is being treated like a "lab rat," and that cap and trade would push jobs and investment dollars to neighboring states.
Sandel and supporters of the proposals have been busy urging more people to testify before the board.
Hinkle said it was important for him to be at the hearing. He said wanted to speak for the grandmothers, the plumbers and the school teachers who can't make the trip to Santa Fe and those who have yet to hear about the debate.
He pointed to the sparse crowd, suggesting there would be standing room only if people knew their utility bills could be impacted.
"If you had an informed public, they would be here," he said. "It's not good policy to set policy when the public is uninformed."
Norton said the state has "bent over backward" to make the process accessible to anyone who's interested.
"Is New Mexico really represented? I think so. It's a good process," he said.

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