Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The Green Amendment, HJR 2 Environmental Rights has been tabled in the House Judiciary by a 9:3 vote, which means it’s dead as a doornail this session.  Legislators galore and a slew of environmental groups supported the Joint Resolution that proposed amending the State Constitutional Bill of Rights. A poll of those attending the hearing showed 74 percent in favor of passage and 26 percent in opposition. 

Prior to the tabling of the amendment, Representative Joanne Ferrary told the Judiciary Committee, “The Green Amendment will add to the Bill of Rights section of our Constitution, a constitutional right to clean air, water and a healthy environment. It will establish a clear trustee obligation on New Mexico’s government officials to protect the state’s natural resources for the benefit of both present and future generations.…It’s been suggested that the repeal of article 20 section 21 (that the Green Amendment would replace) will somehow undermine our legislative authority when it comes to environmental protection. That is simply not true.”

If HJR 2 had secured a majority vote of support in both the Senate and House of Representatives the Green Amendment would have been placed on the next general election ballot in 2022 for a vote by the people of New Mexico. 

Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez pointed out to the committee members that the Green Amendment was “an opportunity to protect all the good work that has been done by this administration – the produced water regulations, the methane regulations – because a consideration of the impact on the environment would have to be done if any future administration wanted to reverse them. And that is very important for the future of New Mexicans.”

Maya van Rossum, “Mother of the Green Amendment,” spoke with The Paper. after the judiciary committee tabled it. Van Rossum was a lead plaintiff in the Pennsylvania case that secured constitutional environmental rights for the people of that state. Her goal is to see a Green Amendment in every state in the nation.

Van Rossum said she suspected the tabling was pre-planned and was not something that happened in the moment. “What I found so striking was that nine members of the committee didn’t even have the courage to vote no. Instead, they used the process to manipulate the words and the information that was put forth, and then they voted to table so that they didn’t have to cast a vote of no. That speaks volumes. Go on record. If you don’t think that people are entitled to the rights of a clean and healthy environment and you don’t think they’re entitled to vote to decide for themselves, tell them outright. Have the courage of your convictions. Make the motion, pass or fail and then vote,” van Rossum said.

Committee members and business representatives said they feared the amendment would lead to massive litigation. Lobbyists for several large energy companies spoke against the amendment including Pattern Energy, whose experience with “this type of law” made the company stop development of a large global project in Montana. They said the Green Amendment would put at risk an estimated $6 billion of additional renewable investment that Pattern has panned for New Mexico.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association lobbyist was concerned the proposed amendment would burden regulators with “defending their professional decisions at potentially great cost to the state.” The Interest Energy Alliance lobbyist said that “without a stable, predictable business environment, companies will go elsewhere.”

Representative Matthew McQueen (D), Representative Deborah Armstrong (D), and Chair Representative Gail Chasey (D) voted not to table the amendment.

“It’s the ‘chicken little sky is falling argument’, designed to scare people into opposition or misunderstanding,” Van Rossum said. “It’s an industry talking point and politicians shouldn’t be picking it up.” She noted that the questioning focused on procedure, as opposed to what are the outcomes of beneficial protection that would result from the amendment. “When our legislative champions tried to characterize outcomes, they got shut down.” She said that the “aggressors on the committee” used the process to manipulate the information, not letting questions be fully answered, then twisting what answer was given.

Van Rossum said they are not seeing an onslaught of litigation in Pennsylvania or Montana due to their Green Amendments, and less than nine per year (where the amendment is mentioned) make it into the courts. 

“If your government officials are fully and fairly performing their responsibilities to protect the environment, and environmental rights, then they will be able to withstand any challenge,” she explained. As to the idea that it would punish government officials or the government by awarding attorney’s fees, she said attorney fees are “rarely granted in environmental cases.”

“What matters is how it has made a difference in protecting people, saving people’s lives. It has literally saved people’s lives in so many ways and to manipulate the questioning in order to skirt around [it] is misappropriation of the process,” van Rossum said. “The question that was being put to these elected representatives was: Will they let the people decide whether they want these rights in their constitution, so that their representatives are obliged to respect and protect them, and what these elected officials did was deny the people the opportunity to decide.”

“Industry is always trying to weaken their obligations. They benefit off the backs of the environment and off the backs of the people. Legislators are the ones who should ensure that they operate in a way that is not harmful. That’s all this amendment is saying: if you’re going to operate here, do so in a way that benefits people. The Green Amendment prevents the sacrifice of people,” she said

“The people are really angry. They’re not disappointed. They’re angry. We’re going to take that anger and turn it into positive power for 2023. We’re going to spread the word, help people understand what this really means, what it really does, so next year, this kind of legislative trickery can’t happen.”