ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The last eight years in New Mexico under the administration of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson have seen hefty fines against environmental polluters and new regulations aimed at cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions.
Richardson and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department also made efforts to protect Otero Mesa from oil and gas drilling, while the state Environment Department led the charge to enforce water quality standards from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Kirtland Air Force Base to the dairies scattered across southern New Mexico.
But with a new administration poised to take control under the direction of Republican Gov.-elect Susana Martinez, environmentalists and some state officials are concerned that environmental protections will be rolled back.
"I fear a scorched earth. I really do," said John Horning, executive director of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
Horning and others are worried that once Richardson leaves office, state government will turn a blind eye to regulation and cripple those agencies that are responsible for managing water and air quality and natural resource development.
However, for industry groups and some state lawmakers, the end of the Richardson era could mean the end of what they refer to as a stranglehold on business that has resulted from regulation.
"We're in one of the worst economies we've ever seen and what have we done? We've said we understand that the economy is crappy, we understand we have problems and oh by the way, New Mexico, it's closed for business. We've shut down," said House Minority Whip Keith Gardner of Roswell, who has been tapped to serve as Martinez's chief of staff.
The crackdown on polluters is evident by the settlements the Environment Department has been able to reach over the past eight years with dozens of companies that have violated their permits. The settlements total more than $74 million dollars, some of which has been funneled to the state's general fund.
Environment Secretary Ron Curry said many of the laws and regulations his department has been enforcing in recent years have been on the books for decades but were largely unused by previous administrations.
"The word accountability in the political world right now is very popular," Curry said. "When you look at what we're doing, we're just trying to make people and entities accountable for the way they use the land and water. It's nothing more than that."
Curry said his biggest concern would be rollbacks affecting water quality.
The state has tried to crack down on groundwater pollution from dairies and has been urging regulators to approve a sweeping proposal that would give special protection to some 700 miles of rivers and streams, 29 lakes and more than 4,900 acres of wetlands in a dozen federal wilderness areas around the state.
The state Oil Conservation Commission also adopted controversial rules aimed at safeguarding groundwater supplies from waste pits in oil and gas country.
"I think the state of New Mexico is going to see a full fledged attack by the special interests on water quality. That is very unfortunate because usually if you're attacking water quality, a lot of times you're looking at rural areas," Curry said.
Curry and others are also worried about the make up of a committee appointed by the incoming governor to identify the state's next environment secretary. The committee is dominated by the oil and gas industry.
Oil and gas officials argue that many of the boards and commissions under the Richardson administration were weighted with members representing environmental interests.
With the tide turning, Michael Jensen of the group Amigos Bravos predicted "an unprecedented effort" at rolling back environmental and public health regulations, including the so-called pit rules and the state's new regional cap-and-trade program.
"This anti-regulatory philosophy is very shortsighted and even contradictory," he said. "Those pushing for regulatory rollbacks claim that it is necessary for the state's economic health, but the fact is that fair and effective regulations benefit the state and its residents."
Jensen, Horning and others said New Mexico could end up paying more in the long run if air and water quality is compromised.
Gardner argued that public policy needs to be about balance and science, rather than the feel-good attitudes of politicians.
"I think this is about someone trying to leave their mark," he said, referring to Richardson. "That's what it's all about. It's not about good policy, it's about trying to create some kind of legacy."
Marita Noon, executive director of Citizens' Alliance For Responsible Energy, sat through many of the hearings on the greenhouse gas regulations. She said energy has been a big part of New Mexico's economy but Richardson's policies, including his effort to cap emissions, are chasing businesses away.1 comment on this story
"Nobody wants dirty air or dirty water. But the way the punishments are handed out have definitely been antibusiness," she said. "It has nothing to do with what's good or right for the state of New Mexico."
Industry groups and environmentalists both agree that Martinez and the Legislature — which face a mounting budget deficit — will have their hands full next year as everyone jockeys for a seat at the table to help chart New Mexico's course.
Curry said it's incumbent upon the new leaders to understand that environmental issues are not defined by Democrats or Republicans.
"I think you'll see efforts to roll things back, but the issues have always been developed based upon science and public input and if you keep developing them based on science and public input, I'm hopeful you'll see the same result," he said.