Lawmakers seek amendment to ensure 'environmental rights'

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two Democratic state senators are seeking to strengthen protections for the environment and natural resources through a joint resolution that seeks to amend the state constitution and bring New Mexico in line with numerous other states that already guarantee residents rights to clean air and water.

Environmentalists are calling it New Mexico’s “Green Amendment.” It is among numerous environmental proposals up that will be up for consideration during the 60-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.

If approved, the proposal would be put on the ballot for voters to decide.

Introduced by Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque and William Soules of Las Cruces, the resolution is modeled after similar provisions in Montana and Pennsylvania.

It reads that New Mexico shall conserve, protect and maintain natural resources for the benefit of all the people, including future generations.

“It's really about protecting the things that are so special in New Mexico — our land, air and water. People have a fundamental right for those things to be protected from pollution,” Soules said in an interview.

New Mexico already has laws and regulations aimed at limiting air pollution, the release of wastewater and other types of industrial spills. But Soules said he views the proposed amendment as a way to shift the paradigm from a right to pollute unless otherwise prohibited to a right that ensures protection.

The push comes as environmentalists pressure state regulators to adopt tougher limits on methane and other emissions from the oil and gas industry, which is one of New Mexico's biggest economic drivers. The ongoing rule-making efforts before the state energy and environment agencies also call for more detailed reporting by the industry.

Environmentalists also plan to support legislation that would limit carbon emissions from other sources such as transportation and the construction industry.

Other proposals involve the prohibition of using fresh water for hydraulic fracturing, more oversight of the wastewater produced during drilling activities, efforts to boost energy efficiency and clearing the way for the state to adopt environmental laws that are more stringent than those at the federal level.

Some Democratic lawmakers also have proposed revisiting New Mexico's landmark energy transition law to ensure that state regulators maintain their authority when it comes to decisions about how much money utilities can recover from customers for costs related to power plant closures.

As for the Green Amendment, the call to constitutionalize environmental rights began decades ago. About two dozen states have constitutions that address natural resources and concerns about pollution.

While some legal experts have said that the importance of such provisions has been overshadowed by the adoption starting in the 1970s of stronger state and federal environmental laws, environmentalists are rekindling interest in constitutional provisions as a tool in the climate change battle.

Mona Blaber with the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club said the New Mexico proposal would create a private right of action for the public to sue over environmental degradation.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank, said while climate change has become a concern for this generation, the environment is in relatively better shape than it was even 40 years ago when there were fewer laws related to air and water quality. He said the proposed amendment implies the opposite.

“It ignores the fact that the environment by and large is getting better. Climate change is a real issue, but this is an open door for lawsuits and/or bad policy,” he said.