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States can lead on climate and clean energy


Western states like New Mexico and Colorado share a deep heritage of valuing our natural environment, which drives our economies, our daily lives and our cultures. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to be separated from our friends, families and workplaces, the great outdoors have become a true sanctuary for all of us, a refuge where we remember what is good and beautiful about the world we all share.

But that heritage is under threat as the federal government continues to rescind critical environmental protections and deny the impacts of climate change. New Mexico this year experienced an extended wildfire season, and Colorado had its largest wildfire in state history. States around the West struggled to control blazes that claimed lives, burnt millions of acres and sent smoke across the continent.

This pattern of willful negligence runs deep.

Case in point: The Trump administration recently eliminated essential air quality protections in the oil and gas industry while turning a blind eye toward holding polluters accountable. Headlines around the country proclaimed the news of these rollbacks, but nowhere will their devastating effects be felt more acutely than in oil and gas states like ours. In New Mexico, the oil and gas industry is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the state. In Colorado, oil and gas is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases and local air pollution. This rollback joins a lengthy list of other environmental protections rolled back during the Trump presidency.

We are on board with treating the oil and gas industry fairly — we note here that the industry represents a substantial revenue source for our states — while expecting them to operate responsibly within our borders for the sake of public health, safety and the environment. But the Trump administration giving carte blanche to industry doesn’t sit well with us.

Our states are today contending with declining air quality and the negative impacts of climate change, undeniably due to anthropogenic sources of pollution —  and now unprecedented wildfires burning throughout the West — all while the federal government continues to launch attacks on our basic right to clean, breathable air.

In New Mexico and Colorado, levels of ground-level ozone, which have harmful health effects on the 8.2 million people who live in our states, are on the rise, with the oil and gas industry as a major contributor of the components that combine to create the pollution. These impacts are especially felt in vulnerable populations like the elderly, children, low-income communities and communities of color. These gases leaking into our atmosphere from the oilfield not only contribute to declining air quality; when oil and gas operators vent or flare emissions rather than collect them, a valuable resource in the form of natural gas goes to waste.

And so, with or without a federal government interested in protecting the health and safety of our constituents, we are setting an example of what responsible clean air and climate policy should look like for other states and the nation.

Oil and gas operations in Colorado and New Mexico will soon be cleaner than ever before. Colorado is implementing recently passed landmark oil and gas legislation that puts health and safety first when it comes to oil and gas extraction activities and gives local communities a major say in drilling in their area. This law also includes strong direction to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants in the oil and gas industry.

Likewise, New Mexico is taking unprecedented and innovative action to improve air quality and build the economy by reducing harmful emissions from the oil and gas industry. Last month — after more than a year of work that entailed thousands of hours of community and stakeholder input and collaboration with environmental, academic and industry experts — New Mexico released draft regulations to curb emissions of methane and gases that contribute to ozone formation in the oil and gas industry, the state’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

These new protections, like Colorado’s, will put oil and gas operators on a level playing field while significantly reducing emissions and wasted resources, holding industry accountable and giving citizen scientists a better avenue for reporting polluters. It’s a win-win for the environment and the economy, leaving no one behind.

Contrary to the paranoid and binary world in which the Trump administration operates, this isn’t an us-versus-them situation. We have worked collaboratively with the oil and gas industry, as well as stakeholders from local government, environmental groups, community members and academia, to create a regulatory landscape that should serve as an example to other states — and the federal government.

And despite the fact that Trump argues he is doing right by industry, industry is in fact craving stability in the current tumultuous regulatory landscape. In a world where Trump’s announcement of yet another rollback of critical environmental regulations is routine, each of which is inevitably challenged in court, industry is craving regulatory certainty and understands the ultimate benefit of being good neighbors within the New Mexico and Colorado communities they operate in.

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on public health and the economy, western states continue to work together toward cleaner energy, cleaner jobs, cleaner economies and cleaner cars to mitigate further public health and economic crises brought on by deteriorating air quality, rising temperatures, undiversified energy economies and a federal government that is looking the other way.

We cannot allow clean water, breathable air and habitable cities to be denied to future generations, and we will act with or without the help of the White House to prevent this from ever becoming a reality. When the dust of the pandemic — and this presidency — settles, we want the outdoors to remain a sanctuary. Our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, deserve nothing less.

Polis is the governor of Colorado and Lujan Grisham is the governor of New Mexico.

Tags Air pollution Climate change Greenhouse gas Methane

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