While lying in bed late at night, Michael Neas, a resident of Placitas, New Mexico, was half-listening to the radio when he heard the words “Green Amendment.”
“I perked up in the middle of the night,” said Neas, a retired general contractor. “I turned the radio up and sat up, and I was concentrating.”
Talk show host Thom Hartmann was speaking with Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum about efforts to use amendments to state constitutions to protect environmental rights.
The next morning, Neas called van Rossum and asked for her help to amend New Mexico’s constitution to include environmental rights, an effort that has only been successful in three states. Two years later, the idea has a chance of being put on this year’s general election ballot.
But a hearing Friday before the House Judiciary Committee, where a previous version of the resolution proposing the amendment died last year, may determine whether the current resolution dies or moves on to a vote in the New Mexico House of Representatives.
The resolution, introduced by Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Joanne Ferrary, both Democrats, would secure the people’s right to “clean and healthy air, water, soil and environment; a stable climate; and self-sustaining ecosystems, for the benefit of public health, safety and general welfare.”
“[The amendment] opens up a hopeful future that people who are injured really do have an ability to seek redress for that and to solve some very serious problems in New Mexico,” said Clifford Villa, an environmental law professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
If the resolution passes, New Mexico would become the fourth state in the nation to pass a Green Amendment that incorporates environmental rights into its Bill of Rights, following New York, Montana and Pennsylvania, which became the first state to adopt one more than half a century ago. Currently, New Mexico is one of a dozen states considering a Green Amendment. The United States is one of 37 countries globally that do not constitutionally recognize the right to a clean and healthy environment.
New Mexico’s Green Amendment would protect not only the state’s plants and animals, but sites like Chaco Canyon that are culturally significant to Native Americans.
Van Rossum, who is also an environmental attorney, successfully used Pennsylvania’s amendment to challenge a pro-fracking law in 2013, and since has advocated for states to adopt similar amendments.
Sedillo Lopez introduced the bill last year, but it stalled in committee. To help this year’s version avoid that end, the state’s current joint resolution states that monetary damages will not be awarded for a violation of this amendment, phrasing that had not been a part of last year’s proposed Green Amendment. The intent, van Rossum said, is to achieve “equitable remedies”—in essence, require governments to actually fix environmental harm, rather than simply pay monetary damages.
Unlike regular bills, if the resolution successfully makes it through the legislature, it will not have to be sent to the governor for approval. Instead, as a proposed amendment, it will be put on the ballot in the upcoming general election.
The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee was tied on a vote, but then passed it on Feb. 5 after language was adjusted. Now it goes to a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. If it passes there, it would then move on to the New Mexico House of Representatives before it faces the State Senate. But the Judiciary Committee is where last year’s version of the resolution died, and the new version is running out of time to get onto the ballot. This year, New Mexico’s legislative session is only 30 days long, and ends on Feb. 17.
“Once you have a green amendment, what it does is it raises up environmental rights, so they are given the same highest constitutional standing and protection as all the other fundamental rights that we hold dear,” said van Rossum.
The movement in New Mexico has gained more momentum since it was first introduced to legislators in 2020. Van Rossum attributes this to grassroots outreach efforts. Nicole Olonovich, a Hispanic native of New Mexico and community activist, said people are surprised to find out that a clean and healthy environment is not a constitutional right.
“That right that we assume is a right, we assume is a law, is not a law, and that’s the first step,” said Olonovich.
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Only four legislators sponsored the bill last year. The current bill has 25 legislative sponsors, all of whom are Democrats.
If ratified, the amendment would be a significant win for marginalized communities living in what environmental justice advocates often refer to as “sacrifice zones,” or areas overburdened by polluting infrastructure, such as factories, landfills and highways.
“I want to see water in our land and air protected, and making it a human right is extremely important and extremely valuable to our human existence,” said Terry Sloan, director of Southwest Native Cultures and a Navajo and Hopi Native American.
Opponents at the first House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing at the end of January said that the amendment is unnecessary, that it could potentially harm natural resource-dependent industries and that its language is too broad.
New Mexico is the third top oil-producing U.S. state, according to the Energy Information Administration, after Texas and North Dakota. Oil and gas has contributed an average of one third of the state’s annual budget for about seven years.
Tiffany Rivera, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau told lawmakers during the January hearing that “the language is ambiguous and vague and leaves much up for personal interpretation as to what is considered clean and healthy.”
Eric Jantz, senior staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said that “civil rights are broadly painted” and that the amendment would make for a more equitable process for seeking environmental justice.
There are 23 tribes and 19 pueblos in the state of New Mexico that need these protections, said Olonovich.
Van Rossum’s ultimate goal is to take the fight for a cleaner environment to the federal level. For now, she said, the movement is moving state by state.