New Mexico could enact environmental protections more stringent than federal regulations under a bill endorsed Tuesday by the Senate Conservation Committee.

After a hearing that drew testimony from environmental advocates who support the measure, and oil and gas and other business interests that oppose it, the committee voted 6-2 to advance Senate Bill 8, which would amend the Air Quality Control Act and the Hazardous Waste Act to allow rules more rigid than federal standards.

Two of the three Republicans on the committee, Sen. David Gallegos of Eunice and Sen. Steve Neville of Farmington, cast the opposing votes.

The third Republican on the committee, Sen. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, said he would support the bill because the state shouldn’t be relying on the federal government for its environmental regulations.

“Even though I think I disagree with what the Environment Department will do with the bill because, for example, I have not seen evidence as far as some of the issues with global warming and anthropogenic climate change, but I think for me, this is a bill about local control,” he said. “I do believe in self-sovereignty and local control.”

As currently written, the laws require the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board to adopt regulations that are no more stringent than those at the federal level.

“Both the federal laws dealing with air and hazardous waste specifically contain a carve-out allowing states to exercise primacy and be able to regulate in these areas,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who is sponsoring the legislation.

“For example, the limitation in the Air Quality Control Act has made it difficult for the Environment Department to propose regulations to address methane emissions, something that they’ve been working on, a very potent greenhouse gas,” he said.



Among those testifying against the bill was Jim Winchester, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico.

“We have several concerns, one of which is that if we have different standards between state and federal regulations, that creates confusion and burden for our operators,” he said. “Second of all, we do feel like the regulations in place currently on the federal level are more than adequate to protect the environment, including making sure that we have safe drinking water, as well as protecting the atmosphere.”

Representatives of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association also spoke in opposition.

Supporters urged the committee to advance the measure, saying it would protect the health of people and communities around the state.

Chris Mann, a member of the legislative action team for 350 Santa Fe, an environmental advocacy organization, said federal laws generally provide a baseline level of protection, not a ceiling.

“Over the last four years, you’ve seen what can happen [when] an anti-environmental administration comes to power in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

“New Mexico, blessed with clear blue skies, pure water, albeit scarce, and healthy lands and wildlife, these natural resources are too precious to be put at risk by capricious actions by the federal government,” he said.

“As the old saying goes, ‘once bitten, twice shy,’ ” Mann added. “Never again should we rely solely on the federal government for key environmental safeguards. Let’s look out for our own interests.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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