By Staci Matlock, Santa Fe New Mexican

Few issues separate New Mexico’s candidates for governor as starkly as those surrounding the state’s air, water and land.

Susana Martinez, the Republican incumbent, came into office with a promise to revisit environmental rules she saw as unfriendly to business. She appointed a task force to review environmental regulations in particular.

“Regulations such as [the] pit rule … do not move us toward a cleaner environment,” Martinez said in 2011 of a rule that set requirements for how waste from oil and gas drilling and production must be handled. “Instead, they move jobs to the other side of the state line.”

Her administration unsuccessfully tried to prevent publication of a couple of environmental rules passed in her predecessor’s term, but unanimous votes by commissions she appointed later have since rescinded or changed the rules.

As attorney general for the past eight years, Gary King — Martinez’s Democratic opponent — supported many of the rules Martinez ultimately sought to eliminate.

“The polluters already have great political clout in Santa Fe,” King said in June. “We need a governor who will stand up for environmental protection that preserves the beauty, resources and traditions of our state.”

In the runup to the Nov. 4 general election, issues crucial to New Mexico’s fragile environment have largely taken a back seat to the state’s lagging economy and struggling education system. Many of the battles over environmental issues are complicated, highly technical and easy to muddy up with legal wrangling. But the ultimate decisions stand to impact New Mexico’s environment and economy for decades to come.

Martinez thinks some environmental regulations and bureaucratic red tape have hurt businesses. King thinks regulations passed under the previous administration better protected the state’s resources.

The two candidates have fought some battles on the same side, such as crafting a haze reduction plan for the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, a source of electrical power for the state.

But on other major cases — from a rule capping greenhouse gas emissions to a rule regulating copper mines — the candidates have been on opposite sides.

Martinez said from the beginning of her first term that she wanted to strike a policy balance between the environment and the economy.

Environmentalists think she has sacrificed the environment without benefiting the economy or boosting jobs all that much.

Conservation Voters New Mexico gave Martinez an F on the environmental report card it issues every year. The organization did not grade King because it only rates policymakers who can make and veto laws or appoint commissions.

The group gave Martinez an F for “repeated and aggressive attacks on common-sense environmental safeguards across the board. In each of these decisions, she has chosen the interests of polluters over what’s best for New Mexican families now and in the future,” said Liliana Castillo, the group’s spokeswoman.

Its PAC, CVNM Action Fund, has endorsed King. “When he served in the Legislature, Attorney General King was widely considered an environmental champion, and his performance in the AG’s Office has boasted some significant bright spots — including his recent battle against the copper rule,” the group said.

King has attacked the Martinez administration over passage of a rule that sets criteria for discharge permits the copper mining industry needs for activities that contaminate groundwater. He says the rule violates the state Water Quality Act and would allow industries to pollute water under their properties and clean it up later.

Oil and gas trade groups declined to comment on the two candidates, but the industries they represent have spoken loudly with their pocketbooks.

Oil, gas and other energy-related industries had contributed nearly $600,000 to Martinez’s campaign through June, her largest financial backers. She’s received donations of $10,000 or more from companies such as Halliburton, Devon Energy and Occidental Petroleum. The most recent financial disclosure reports show she subsequently got another $88,000 from the oil industry and related businesses.

King, by comparison, had raised just $9,500 from energy sector donations through June.

But in this election, environmental issues aren’t likely to play a big role in who wins, said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor and director for the Center of Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at The University of New Mexico. “It is hard to imagine environmental issues playing a big role in the election because we’re focused on economic and education issues, especially the economy because there hasn’t been a vast improvement since the recession. The economy sort of trumps everything.”

Protecting water

The Martinez administration’s actions on water have been a mixed bag from the perspective of environmentalists. Conservation Voters New Mexico gives Martinez high marks for devoting funds to a river stewardship program and signing laws sponsored by state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, to close domestic well loopholes and protect groundwater from subdivision development.

Martinez said she worked with Democrats and Republicans to get $89 million earmarked for projects to fix dams, repair watersheds and improve water and wastewater systems around the state. Martinez originally requested $112 million for water projects.

The New Mexico Environment Department under Martinez established water quality standards for 62 New Mexico lakes. Current department Secretary Ryan Flynn was lead attorney for the department at the time. The administration also established a river stewards program, an action lauded by Conservation Voters New Mexico and other conservation groups. Flynn said the department also assessed more than $27 million in penalties and collected more than $12 million in fines since 2011 from companies that violated environmental regulations.

But the new rule governing copper mines in Southern New Mexico and changes to the pit rule regulating oil and gas drilling waste have marked the administration among conservationists as one more concerned with industry than with protecting the state’s water. The copper rule and the pit rule changes have been challenged, and decisions are pending from the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

King, environmentalists and some former staffers from the New Mexico Environment Department believe the copper rule approved by Martinez-appointed state regulators gives copper giant Freeport-McMoRan leeway to pollute groundwater underneath its mine near Silver City in southwestern New Mexico, contrary to state law. They contend the rule was largely written by Freeport and signed off on by the Environment Department, an allegation vehemently denied by Flynn.

Flynn said the new rule does away with variances for mining companies and provides certainty in the regulation. He denies the rule will open the way for other industries, such as dairies and other mining interests, to pollute groundwater first and clean up later. The copper rule, Flynn said, “is the most environmentally protective regulation for protecting groundwater from the impacts of mining, in the country.”

King’s office is fighting the copper rule because he said it allows Freeport to do what the state fought the company over for a decade — pollute the groundwater beneath the mine.

Martinez also softened a rule approved during the last administration that required waste generated from oil and gas production to be stored in lined pits until it can be shipped to landfills specially permitted to handle hazardous waste. The so-called pit rule was put in place after months of input from industry and environmentalists. But after the oil and gas industry appealed, the Martinez administration added exceptions to the rule that allow some waste to remain in place.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center has appealed the revised pit rule that was approved by the Martinez-appointed Oil Conservation Commission, saying it weakens protections for groundwater.

Climate change

As an already dry state that has experienced periodic severe droughts in its history, New Mexico is easily subject to the effects of climate change. Less snow, dying forests, wildfires and more frequent intense droughts are among the predictions scientists have made for the state in the decades ahead due to climate change. A majority of climate scientists attribute climate change and regional warming to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels to power homes, businesses and vehicles.

King believes climate change is occurring and that New Mexico, as a top energy-producing state, can take a lead in addressing it. “Climate change presents a significant threat to New Mexico,” he told The New Mexican. “It can only be addressed on a global basis. As governor and as a scientist, I can advocate for national and global action.”

Martinez hasn’t been known as a climate change believer. Upon taking office, she dismissed all seven people appointed by the former Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, to the Environmental Improvement Board and tried to halt two rules approved by the former board aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and industry. A state Supreme Court decision stopped her effort temporarily, but her new board unanimously voted to rescind the two rules, saying the rules would put New Mexico at a competitive disadvantage for attracting businesses and that the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Cleaning up the air

Still, a single action for which her administration takes credit may do more to help the state meet a new federal cap on greenhouse gas emissions than any other — a plan to shut down half the units at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

The Martinez administration brokered a compromise plan between the federal government and owners of the power plant to reduce haze. The plan requires the plant, operated by Public Service Company of New Mexico, to shut down two of the four coal-fired units by 2017 and replace the electricity from other sources. Martinez and Flynn said the plan won’t cost any jobs and will ultimately reduce the rate charged to PNM customers. “It also diversifies our energy portfolio,” said Flynn. “We were very locked in to a single source of generation, coal power.”

The cost to customers has yet to be determined, though, and depends entirely on how PNM replaces the power once the two units at San Juan are shuttered. PNM has proposed replacing the power with nuclear, natural gas, solar and more coal-fired capacity on the remaining two units at San Juan.

EPA has given preliminary approval to the San Juan haze-reduction plan, which also could go a long way to help the state meet new proposed carbon dioxide standards from the federal agency, according to Flynn.

Any plan for replacing the coal-generated power also needs approval from the Public Regulation Commission, which plans to hold a public hearing on the proposal.

Martinez notes that no less than Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, in 2013 called the state-brokered haze-reduction plan for San Juan “the greatest environmental improvement in the state’s history” and said Martinez “deserves credit for her pragmatic approach to solving this contentious dispute. The governor was responsive to economic drivers and the needs of New Mexicans.”

But now Nanasi and other environmentalists who originally applauded the plan are fighting hard against PNM’s proposal to replace the power by adding back more coal-fired generating capacity on one of the remaining units at San Juan.

Meanwhile, the administration opposes the EPA’s recent proposal to regulate carbon emissions for the first time from existing power plants.

Martinez was among 15 governors who sent President Barack Obama a letter Sept. 9 raising concerns about the EPA carbon rule. The governors think the agency has overstepped its authority and hasn’t fully analyzed the impact on states of switching to more renewable energy sources, building natural gas plants or increasing nuclear power to replace coal.

King supports the EPA’s proposed carbon emissions rule for existing coal-fired power plants. New Mexico, under King’s direction, has joined 10 other states and New York City in asking to intervene in opposition to an appeal of the carbon rule by West Virginia and other states.

“New Mexico is currently participating in legal proceedings to require the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a hazardous pollutant,” King said. “We should continue to participate.”

Developing energy

King said the state should strive to meet current renewable energy standards calling for utilities to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020. But he also said the state should set new standards to encourage more renewable energy.

“We should provide incentives to companies that are developing more efficient technologies for renewable energy production and storage,” he said. “We should also develop new ideas to increase our exports of natural gas for energy production and chemical synthesis.”

He said New Mexico should be a leader in energy conservation, fostering technologies to store renewable energy and in carbon sequestration “that can help in reducing future increases in greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Martinez said the state needs to pursue an “all of the above” approach to energy by developing oil, gas, wind and sun.

“State government should help — not hinder — companies that want to explore energy production, and one way to do that is to provide answers quickly for those seeking energy permits,” Martinez told The New Mexican in an email. “For example, New Mexico now processes energy permits within eight days or less, allowing companies to create jobs without getting entangled in bureaucracy. We should also focus on reforming and expanding the renewable energy tax credit to make it work for New Mexico employers and attract new businesses.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.