Environment news briefs

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Seed swap on Saturday

Avid gardeners and farmers will have the chance this Saturday (Oct. 14) to exchange seeds harvested at the end of the growing season. Organized by the Taos-based Sweetly Seeds, the swap is scheduled to take place at ReThreads (302 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos) from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Solar energy

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative signed a 30-year power purchase agreement with the town of Taos for a 1-megawatt solar array that will be constructed at the town's regional water treatment plant.

The deal was inked by Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes, Taos Mayor Dan Barrone and Town Manager Rick Bellis Aug. 22.

Under the terms of the agreement, the co-op will buy the energy generated by the town-owned solar array for the next three decades. The project will move the co-op toward its goal of achieving 100 percent solar energy during daylight hours by 2022. At the same time, the new array will also stabilize operational costs at the sewage plant by generating monthly revenue from the electricity sales, according to a statement from the town and Kit Carson Electric.

Furthermore, the sewage plant's current solar array - which runs the plant itself - will be upgraded and equipped with battery storage "to act as a surge protector and to level off peak loads," said Bellis. The upgrades and additions should help save money at the plant, which is financed by users' monthly bills, by preserving equipment and reducing demand on the grid during peak hours.

The $2 million project was approved by the Taos council earlier this year and is financed through a competitive grant and low-interest loan from the New Mexico Energy and Minerals department, according to a September press release from the town.

"No grants or loans are available for operating costs, which is why this solar project was so unique. We are able to generate additional revenue without raising rates on the water and sewer customers, while helping KCEC to lower its future electric costs, including the town's bills. This is the first time such an innovative approach has been used and we had to do some convincing of the state, electric company and others that it would work for everyone's benefit," said Bellis.

Another 2-megawatt solar array at the same facility is still in the works, though that one will be owned by Guzman Energy, the co-op's wholesale power supplier, on land leased by the town.

BLM methane rule

A federal judge in California ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to reinstate an administrative rule to limit the amount of methane released into the environment from energy production.

The federal decision, announced Oct. 4, is a response to the Department of the Interior's moves in June to delay imposing the rule, designed during the Obama administration, until 2019.

Methane is one of most potent contributors to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. In 2016, NASA scientists found oil and gas production to be responsible for a methane cloud hanging over the Four Corners region.

The federal rule forces oil and gas companies to capture methane rather than release it through flaring. The rule was finalized through administrative procedures in 2016 and, following the judge's decision, is currently set to fully go into effect in January 2018.

"This rule is simply good policy - good for taxpayers, good for the economy and good for the environment. ... Everyone should agree that preventing the waste of taxpayer-owned resources should not only be a goal. It's our obligation," said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, ahead of the judge's decision.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, along with his counterpart in California, sued the federal government over the rule delay.

The Western Environmental Law Center, which has an office in Taos, was among the environmental groups that joined Balderas' lawsuit.

"The oil and gas industry had extensive input and influence on this rule, and now an administration that clearly serves polluters over people is doing everything it can to turn back the clock," said the center's Shiloh Hernandez. "We spent three years painstakingly developing this rule. It went through all the right processes, and in the end, these companies will make money selling the captured gas."

On Tuesday (Oct. 10), the Bureau of Land Management published a separate rule that would push the compliance deadline for the methane rule to January 2019. The public has until Nov. 6 to comment on the changes.

The Trump administration has attempted to delay implementation or completely rescind other Obama-era environmental regulations since Trump took office in January. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said Tuesday (Oct. 10) he'd move to formally roll back the Clean Power Plan, another environmental policy meant to address climate change. The plan aimed to curtail carbon emissions from power plants.

Drilling near Chaco Canyon

The All Pueblo Council of Governors passed a resolution last month calling for a moratorium on drilling in the Chaco region, adding more voices to the ongoing calls for a closer examination of the impacts of energy development in the area.

The council passed the resolution Sept. 21, requesting the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs "immediately institute a moratorium on all oil and gas related permitting and leasing the Great Chaco Canyon region to protect traditional cultural properties and sacred sites" until the agencies complete an ethnographic study of the cultural importance of the landscape.

The resolution mirrors previous statements from the council, as well as nonbinding legislation passed by the New Mexico House of Representatives earlier this year.

Oil and gas drilling in the region picked up in recent years and moved closer to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, an ancestral Puebloan site still considered sacred to modern Pueblo and Navajo people.

In January, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned oil and gas leases on nearly 900 acres of public land within 19 miles of the historic park. In September, the agency announced plans to move ahead with another round of lease sales in March 2018, some within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon.

Moving ahead with more oil and gas leases "would not only violate the previous commitment of the BLM and BIA, but the spirit of the ongoing joint public process which these agencies are conducting with the community," read a recent letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke from New Mexico's U.S. senators and Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

"The proposed parcels near Chaco are nibbling away around the edges of the national park and are disturbingly close to significant cultural features and ancestral sites," said Ernie Atencio, New Mexico program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

"Everything oil and gas is on fast track now and appears to be tone deaf to public concerns," Atencio told The Taos News via email Tuesday (Oct. 10).

A federal initiative to improve planning within the BLM, called "Planning 2.0," was revoked by Congress and the president earlier this year. The improved planning rules would have used modern planning tools and established a flexible framework for bringing the public and developers into closer conversation.

"Planning 2.0 was intended to actively involve the public earlier and in a more meaningful way in comprehensive planning processes. Smart, collaborative planning that integrates those public concerns from the start can avoid conflicts and save BLM a lot of grief," Atencio said.

However, Atencio noted the public has until Oct. 20 to comment on the proposed March 2018 lease sales by visiting the BLM's "eplanning" portal (eplanning.blm.gov).

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