Background. For decades, activists have relied on federal and state legislation to fight for a cleaner environment. And for decades, they’ve been fighting a losing battle. The sad truth is, our laws are designed to accommodate pollution and legalize environmental degradation rather than prevent them. It’s no wonder people feel powerless when it comes to preserving the quality of their water, air, climate, public parks, and special natural spaces.
The Green Amendment, is a self-executing provision added to the bill of rights section of a state Constitution that recognizes and protects the rights of all people, including future generations, to pure water, clean air, a stable climate, and healthy environments regardless of race, ethnicity, tribal membership status, socioeconomics or geography. In November 2021, with over 70% of voters in favor, New York became the third state (joining Pennsylvania and Montana) to add a Green Amendment to its constitution. Efforts to pass Green Amendments are under way in multiple states, including NM, where it was first introduced in 2021 as SJR3, the Environmental Rights Act. Despite broad Democrat support in the legislature and intense grassroots lobbying, fierce industry opposition has prevented the resolution from getting to the floor of either the NM State House or Senate.
What the HJR 4/SJR 6 Environmental Rights Act Would Do
HJR 4/SJR 6 would amend the NM State Constitution by adding a new section to Article 2 to provide the people of the state with environmental rights, including the right to clean and healthy air, water, soil, and environments, a stable climate and self-sustaining ecosystems, and directs the state, counties and municipalities to serve as trustees of the natural resources of New Mexico for the benefit of all the people and by repealing the current pollution control provisions of Article 20 Section 21.
If the legislature passes HJR4 or SJR 6, the Green Amendment would be placed on the 2024 General Election ballot. The Governor does not need to sign the resolution; it goes straight to the voters. If approved by the voters, a New Mexican resident who feels h/she is being harmed by environmental conditions that are supposed to be regulated by a state agency, could file suit, not to seek financial compensation, but to force regulatory action to protect that individual from the environmental harms to which he/she is subject. Essentially the Green Amendment allows a resident to go to court to force the state to enforce its environmental laws and regulations and protect residents from preventable environmental harms.
Why This Legislation Is Good for NM
- Adding a Green Amendment to the state constitution would mandate that our government officials respect and protect the right to clean air, water, and land for all residents of the state.
- The Green Amendment simply provides residents with a tool for forcing the state to implement the environmental protections that have been put into law by the legislature or Congress. The Green Amendment does not provide residents with the power to ask the courts to direct the legislature to create legislation to establish new protections.
- Despite robust NM legislation and regulation in place to protect residents from environmental harm, many of these regulations go unenforced by the state agencies charged with enforcement
- The oil and gas industry in NM emits 570,000 tons of methane a year, the equivalent climate impact of 12 coal-fired power plants. Methane pollution, a known carcinogen, has more than doubled in the Permian Basin since 2011. A recent Searchlight report verified unchecked methane releases throughout the Permian Basin with virtually no inspections being conducted or fines levied.
- Native nations such as the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo, and Apache are on the frontlines of environmental racism in our state, with radioactive wastewater pollution, desecration of sacred sites for oil infrastructure, and water contamination from fracking in the San Juan Basin.
Once an amendment is in place, residents would have the right to legal redress if any of these rights are violated. For example, a resident experiencing harm from unchecked methane release, could force the NM Environment Dept. to increase inspection activities in order to reduce future methane emissions.
Industry much prefers to be allowed to operate without restraints or with any regard for public health or safety and sadly, our start agencies too often allow this misbehavior to persist unchecked, despite having the legal authority to do intervene. The Green Amendment would allow residents to force state government to do its job.