New Mexico leaders call on Biden to take climate action after Build Back Better Act stalls

By:  Adrian Hedden

After President Joe Biden’s signature piece of environmental legislation appeared to stall in the U.S. Senate, New Mexico leaders and activists called on the President to use his executive powers to declare a “climate emergency” and take steps to address pollution throughout the country.

The Build Back Better Act passed the Democrat-controlled U.S. House last year, but was altered repeatedly by the Senate, also Democrat-led, as senators of both parties cited cost concerns and the economic impacts of many of the bill’s provisions.

Part of Biden’s broader climate change agenda, the legislation and other parts of the initiative would incentivize renewable energy sectors like wind and solar, provide energy rebates to American consumers, electrify ports and create a “Civilian Climate Corps” of 300,000 workers to engage in conservation efforts.

The agenda also included efforts to expand healthcare access, education, reform immigration policies and increase taxes for large corporations.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), a key vote for the bill in the Senate, said repeatedly the agenda estimated to cost up to $2 trillion was too expensive during a time of inflation throughout the U.S.

In response, New Mexico Democrat U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich led a group of senators from his party in calling on Biden to employ his executive authority to declare a “national emergency” to unlock broader federal powers to address pollution.

Biden last week announced a series of executive actions to increase relief funding for communities suffering from drought, extreme heat and other weather events, while adding funding intended to decrease cooling costs and increasing federal land available for wind power developments.

Heinrich’s state is second in the nation in crude oil production, as the southeast region shares the Permian Basin – the U.S.’ most active oilfield – with Texas.

That industry, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, results in large portions of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions through the production and use of fossil fuels.

In the letter, Heinrich and his colleagues argued the declaration would allow the President, under the National Emergency Act (NEA), to redirect spending to support the renewable energy sector and direct the EPA to devise new rules aimed at curbing carbon emissions.

“Declaring the climate crisis a national emergency under the NEA would unlock powers to rebuild a better economy with significant, concrete actions,” the letter read. “All of these actions would employ Americans in new and emerging industries while securing American leadership in global markets.”

Such action was needed to protect public safety, and the environment, the senators contended, and must be taken despite opposition in Congress.

“Addressing this crisis head-on, with the full authorities you possess is a win for the environment, public health, the planet, American workers, American consumers, and our national security interests,” read the letter. “We urge you to act boldly, declare this crisis the national emergency that it is, and embark upon bold regulatory and administrative action.”

Environmental groups in New Mexico joined the call for Biden to act via a letter to Biden asking him to use executive authority to take further action like banning new oil and gas leases of federal land, halting new drilling projects and banning crude oil exports.

Twenty-five New Mexico groups signed that letter, including Carlsbad-based Citizens Caring for the Future representing the Permian Basin region in the southeast.

They argued Biden pledged to address pollution and worsening weather events along the campaign trail, and that a series of such incidents during his first two years in office, such as record-breaking wildfires reported this spring throughout New Mexico, meant action was essential to protect states like New Mexico from further damage.

“You have the authority under existing law to wind down fossil fuel production and catalyze a just, renewable energy revolution to deliver healthier communities, a livable future, and millions of good-paying jobs,” the letter read. “It’s critical that you use that authority as quickly and broadly as possible.”

Fossil fuels were blamed in the letter as leading pollution and subsequent impacts on the climate and environment, and must be curtailed, the letter read, to prevent global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius – an international goal set by the Paris Climate Accord.

“Your administration’s legislative and regulatory climate proposals have not addressed limiting the production and burning of fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change,” read the letter.

“As fossil fuel lobbyists and politicians continue to block real climate action in Congress, bold executive action is desperately needed.”

Oil and gas industry leaders in New Mexico said their industry was a much smaller contributor to air pollution than environmentalists contended, and broad federal environmental actions could needlessly stymie the industry’s economic development and strain energy supplies.

In response to the EPA’s proposal to designate the Permian Basin in “non-attainment” of federal air quality standards – a move that could limit oil and gas operations in the area – President of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Doug Ackerman said the industry in conjunction with state regulators recently took several satisfactory steps to reduce emissions in the Permian Basin.

New Mexico in the last two years finalized new rules to increase the capture of gas produced during fossil fuel production, while also adding requirements for leak detection and repair at oil and gas facilities throughout the state.

“Every day, the oil and gas industry in New Mexico responsibly produces cleaner, more cost-effective energy to Americans who are struggling in the face of record high inflation,” Ackerman said. “We do so while contributing only 3 parts per billion out of the approximate 70 parts per billion of ozone levels in the portion of the Permian Basin that lies in New Mexico.”