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Ride-sharing compromise may be near in New Mexico

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-09 14:38

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: Ride-sharing companies use apps from smartphones to attract customers looking to catch a ride.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ride-sharing companies and New Mexico regulators have been locked in a standoff for months, but a potential compromise could come in the space of a couple of weeks.

On Wednesday, the Public Regulation Commission directed its staff to work out a proposal to make rules that would allow companies such as Lyft and Uber to operate in the state as “specialized passenger services.”

“I do believe the commission would have to be careful to craft a rule, but can do it and have authority,” PRC transportation division director Ryan Jerman told the five commissioners, who then directed the staff to come up with language by July 23.

The ride-sharing companies, operating out of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, have been at odds with the PRC over whether or not they should be licensed and considered like taxi cab services and, therefore, be regulated under the state’s Motor Carrier Act.

Ride-sharing works by allowing customers to download a free smartphone app, which they use to request a ride. The app connects them to the nearest available driver and tracks the length of the trip in distance and time, calculates the cost and automatically transfers the fee from the user’s credit card (already entered into the app at the beginning of the process) to the driver’s account. No cash changes hands.

PRC chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar indicated during Wednesday’s hearing she would support creating a new rule for ride-sharing.

“I don’t think we can just shut the door on a new kind of business in New Mexico,” she said.

But commissioner Valerie Espinoza, who has said she believes Uber and Lyft are essentially no different from cab companies, said after the meeting she’s skeptical about creating new rules.

“The word ‘specialized’ is not defined,” Espinoza told New Mexico Watchdog. “That’s a legislative fix. You’re going to have everybody come up” and want to be classified as specialized “and it’s going to be a free for all. Our job is to protect the safety of all consumers in the state.”

The PRC filed a cease and desist order on Lyft on May 23, but the company has still been operating while not charging customers. On Wednesday, commissioners refused to withdraw the cease and desist order. Uber is also still operating despite not being licensed by the PRC.

Commissioner Ben Hall brought up the idea of having the state’s Department of Public Safety pull over and issue fines to the drivers of ride-sharing companies. “If you don’t want to be legal, go somewhere else,” Hall said.

A PRC attorney said a meeting with the general counsel at DPS is in the works.

Despite his criticism of Uber and Lyft, Hall told New Mexico Watchdog he’ll keep an open mind when it comes to crafting a possible new rule for ride-sharing.

“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it may be a duck,” Hall said.

Commissioner Pat Lyons, who has said he wants to spur business in the state, hopes the meeting July 23 can resolve the issue. “I’m always trying to get government to move faster,” he said.

“We need to act quickly on this,” said commissioner Karen Montoya.

Update 2:34 p.m.: Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson released a statement after Wednesday’s PRC meeting that said in part, “today’s decision by the PRC recognizes that with creative thinking, regulations can be revisited to allow new industries to thrive and still maintain the highest level of public safety.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Six bucks a gallon? Where gas prices might be without the U.S. energy boom

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-08 11:39

ENERGY EXPLOSION: Boom times in places such as the Bakken Formation in North Dakota has helped the U.S. leapfrog Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

If you think the price of gas is high, imagine paying up to $6 a gallon.

That’s what energy expert Dan Steffens thinks the price could be if not for the domestic oil boom.

“With what’s going on the Middle East, I think it would five or six bucks (a gallon),” said Steffens, president of the Energy Prospectus Group out of Houston. “If it wasn’t for the shale revolution, you’d be in big trouble.”

Technological breakthroughs in recent years have led to an explosion in the energy industry in the United States.

Extraction from shale rock formations in places such as the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, the Eagle Ford Formation in south Texas and the Permian Basin in west Texas and eastern New Mexico has been so dramatic that, last month, the International Energy Agency announced the U.S. surpassed Russia and even Saudi Arabia in oil production.

A report from the commodities division of Bank of America says daily output in the U.S. exceeded 11 million barrels in the first quarter of this year.

“If we didn’t have the oil industry and oil and drill activity, the economy would be much, much slower,” Joseph Dancy, investment partner at LSGI Advisors, Inc., based in Dallas, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Drivers have been grumbling about the increase in the price at the pump. Here’s a look at the average price per gallon for the Fourth of July in the U.S. since 2008:

But the message from energy experts? It could have been much worse.

Violence in Mideast nations such as Syria, Iraq and Libya, as well as political unrest in the oil-rich nations of Nigeria and Venezuela, might have sent the price of gasoline through the roof. But benchmark U.S. crude was at $104 a barrel Monday and Brent crude, a benchmark for the international market, was down 33 cents last week to $110.91 a barrel in London.

“There’s no question that this his new-found abundance of oil from shale plays is having a significant impact on the global market,” said Bernard Weinstein, associate director at the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

“We’d probably be at $150 oil with this thing in Iraq going on,” Steffens said.

“While the situation in Iraq seems to be getting worse, oil prices have actually fallen (in some sectors) because the markets now understand that Iraq could go totally off the market and there’s still plenty of oil going around, not just here in the United States,” Weinstein said. “The world is swimming in oil right now.”

The political irony is that President Obama is a beneficiary of relatively stable gas prices, even though the energy explosion is happening in red states such as North Dakota and Texas, where Obama lost to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by nearly 20 points and more than 15 points, respectively.

“It’s a wild boom and it’s all generating economic activity for a president who really does not favor the oil and gas sector at all,” Dancy said. “It is really ironic.”

But environmental organizations lament, rather than celebrate, the shale boom because energy producers use hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to get to the oil and natural gas under the earth’s surface.

“We can’t afford to support the extractive industries,” said Eleanor Bravo, senior organizer for Southwest Food and Water Watch. “The earth and the environment cannot afford to be burning any more fuel. Plus, the fracking process, when you count in the amount of methane that escapes during the extraction process, it’s as dirty or dirtier than burning coal.”

But there’s little indication the boom will stop anytime soon.

According to Weinstein’s statistics, there’s been a 60 percent increase in domestic oil production in the past six years, and Dancy cites figures showing global demand increasing 1 percent per year.

“If you look at the amount of refining exports that are going out of the United States, they’re hitting 20- and 30-year highs,” Dancy said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Transfer federal land to states? NM’s governor open to looking at it

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-08 11:35

LAND FIGHT: There’s a movement to transfer public land from the federal government to individual states. Nearly 42 percent of New Mexico is controlled by the federal government.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Proponents of transferring multiple-use land in the West from the federal government to individual states say it could generate millions of dollars a year for New Mexico.

Opponents question the numbers and the practicality of such a move.

But Gov. Susana Martinez says it’s at least worth considering and thinks forming a statewide task force is a good idea.

“It’s always better to have more information as to the costs,” Martinez told New Mexico Watchdog last week. “It’s always better to know what it would take. How many jobs would it create?”

Martinez made the remarks just one day after joining Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — a fellow Republican who is a leading advocate for the land transfer proposal — at an economic summit in Albuquerque.

In particular, Martinez said the threat of wildfires in New Mexico brings up questions as to whether the state might do a better job than the feds.

“When you have federal land, especially that’s in the forest and it’s not getting taken care of, and we end up with severe fires because of all of the fuel that’s within the forest, you end up losing homes and you end up losing life and they don’t seem to be interested in maintaining those forests,” Martinez said.

In marked contrast to states in the East, the federal government owns vast amounts of land in the West. In nine states — Alaska, California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming — the feds own more than 40 percent of the land:

Supporters say they won’t touch national parks, wilderness areas, military installations or tribal land, but they want to see land the federal government has already listed as open for multiple uses.

They point to a study from an economist in Wyoming who estimated transferring multi-purpose land from the feds to New Mexico would lead to the creation of between $600 million and $1 billion in additional tax money simply through additional jobs and production in the oil and natural gas industries.

But critics — led by environmental organizations — dismiss such claims.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said advocates of public land transfers are “prepared to waste millions of taxpayer dollars in their quixotic quest to send the federal government ‘a message.’ ”

John Horning, executive director at WildEarth Guardians New Mexico, has called the idea “laughable.”

“Public lands are a birthright for all Americans,” Horning said when the subject came up last fall. “I think the state is probably in over its head, acquiring federal land and managing it.”

But state Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, has been trying to create a task force in the New Mexico Legislature to look into the issue.

“Let’s have that dialogue,” Herrell said last September. “Do the risks outweigh the rewards for the state of New Mexico? Clearly, there’s a revenue benefit, but at the end of the day, can we do it? I think, yes. I think it’s worth looking into.”

A bill to set up a task force introduced by Herrell stalled in committee during the most recent legislative session, but Herrell says she plans on introducing it again in the 2015 session.

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of Martinez talking about the land transfer issue:

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Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

NM ranching family tells feds: ‘Don’t fence us out’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-07-03 08:35

DON’T FENCE US OUT: The Lucero family (from left to right, Orlando, Mike and Manuel) say the U.S. Forest Service is going overboard with a proposed 8-foot-high fence in the Santa Fe National Forest.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — For more than a century, the Lucero family has grazed livestock in the majestic landscape near Fenton Lake in the Santa Fe National Forest. They started with sheep and, in the 1920s, switched to cattle.

But that may all come to an end because of an endangered mouse.

“You’re taking a lot of heritage away,” said Mike Lucero, as he looks over the creek that cuts through the meadow. He was accompanied by his brother Manuel and cousin Orlando, who have brought their family’s cattle to this spot since they were children.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the meadow jumping mouse as an endangered species. Now, the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the Santa Fe National Forest, is considering erecting a series of 8-foot high fences to protect the mouse’s habitat.

THE MOUSE IN QUESTION: The meadow jumping mouse has recently been listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Luceros, members of the San Diego Cattleman’s Association and holders of grazing permits with the federal government, say the fences will lock out their cattle — as well as those of other permit holders — from ever returning to the meadow where the livestock graze for 20 days in the spring and up to 40 days in the fall.

“We’re not insensitive to protecting the mouse,” Orlando Lucero said. “But let’s work on something that keeps everyone’s interests in mind.”

Forest Service officials in Albuquerque say no final decision has been made but, at the same time, they are required by law to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Since the meadow jumping mouse is now listed as endangered, the Forest Service is bound to take steps to protect its habitat.

Grazing was listed as one of the “a primary threats” to the mouse, said Robert Trujillo, the acting director of Wildlife, Fish and Rare Plants for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s been our experience that a fence like that to protect that occupied habitat seems to be the best way we can do our affirmative duty and protect that habitat,” Trujillo said.

But the Luceros say putting up a fence is an example of federal government overkill.

“At first, they were talking about a 300-yard fence on eight feet of either side (of the Rio Cebolla, a creek that feeds the meadow),” Manuel Lucero said. “But you look at the (Forest Service) map now and it goes on for three and a half miles – and that’s just for this allotment.”

FUTURE FENCING SPOT?: The San Antonio Campground is a popular spot for families and outdoor enthusiasts.

In fact, the Forest Service proposal could potentially put up fencing over large swaths of the forest, including the San Antonio Campground, a popular destination for families and outdoors enthusiasts in northern New Mexico.

“The San Antonio area, from what I’ve seen, is in the upper portion of that occupied habitat,” Trujillo said. “It possibly could (be affected) but no decision has been made on that.”

“I don’t think the public realizes the San Antonio Campground is being considered,” Mike Lucero said. “If they did, I think there would be a lot upset people.”

The Luceros complain the Forest Service has not done enough to inform the public about the proposed fencing.

“Let’s protect the mouse but we don’t need to take the whole valley,” Orlando Lucero said.

Trujillo said the Forest Service has just started what it calls its “scoping process” to elicit comments. “No decision will be made without gathering input from affected individuals,” he said.

The meadow jumping mouse has plenty of support among environmentalists.

“Saving the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the streamside habitat it needs to survive is long overdue,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity when the mouse received endangered status. “When we protect this tiny animal, we’re also helping people, because we all rely on clean water for survival.”

Trujillo says the mouse is active three to four months out of the year and spends the rest of its time hibernating.

This is the second time in the space of two months that the meadow jumping mouse has raised hackles among people with grazing permits in the state.

Some 275 miles south, in Otero County, the Forest Service reinforced locked gates to keep out cattle from a creek called the Agua Chiquita to protect the mouse’s habitat. The move angered ranchers who tend over herds thirsty from a prolonged drought.

An attorney for Otero County says the state of New Mexico – not the federal government – has the right to access to the water to the creek and a lawsuit may be in the offing.

While the locked gate in the Otero County controversy keeps out only cattle, the Luceros complain 8-foot fencing in the Forest Service proposal in the Santa Fe Forest would keep out just about all forms of wildlife, including elk.

But the difference, Trujillo said, is that “the elk and deer get in there, get water and get out. They don’t tend to lounge around and graze heavily. Cows will sit in there and graze.”

So when will the feds make a decision? Trujillo said it could range anywhere from 30 days to 8 months, depending on how long the assessments take.

“I want to reiterate, we’re committed to working with our permitees and all other stakeholders to really find where that sweet spot is,” Trujillo said.

But the Lucero family is skeptical.

“I think they’re afraid of getting sued” by environmental organizations, Mike Lucero said.

And if the fence is erected, will the Luceros stop ranching?

“Why would we give it up after four generations?” Orlando Lucero said. “We were here before the (Forest Service), back during land grants. We’re not going to go nowhere.”

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of Mike Lucero:

 

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

New Mexico official worries about escapes from immigration facility

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-02 12:00

WILL THEY STAY?: The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia will house up to 700 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. But the head of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety is worried they’ll try to escape if they lose their immigration hearings.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – The secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety has some concerns about a federal Border Patrol training center in southern New Mexico that has been converted into a facility to detain hundreds of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally.

Among the concerns: What’s to keep some detainees from simply climbing over the just-erected 8-foot-high fence should they learn they will not be allowed to stay in the U.S.?

“I worry about people who have taken this remarkable step in their life that has to be borne out of desperation to come to the United States and then they learn that they’re going back to the place that they left,” said DPS Secretary Greg Fouratt. “They might not have the motivation to stick around. How much of that are we going to have to deal with? We have to be prepared.”

Fouratt told New Mexico Watchdog that 193 undocumented immigrants, nearly all from Central America, are expected to he processed by Monday at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol plan to house up to 700 women and children under the age of 17 at the facility, which was originally designed to serve as an academy to train border agents.

The FLETC facility is not taking in unaccompanied minors, estimated to number at least 52,000, who in recent weeks and months have flooded across the southern border.

“Some of my concern is allayed because the population going to Artesia right now is, I guess, as docile as it can be,” Fouratt said, adding that DPS is fretting over ancillary costs that state and local governments could be on the hook for as the facility expands in coming weeks.

“We’re worried there might be more crime than what Homeland Security is worried about,” Fouratt said Monday. “And when that happens, we know that Artesia (Police Department) is going to be called first because FLETC is inside the city limits. We also know that Artesia PD is staffed modestly. Eddy County Sherriff’s Office, the same way. The State Police will be batting third, and God only knows how many times we’re going to have to respond … The best we can do is monitor routinely and regularly.”

Calls to public affairs officers at ICE asking for more details about the facility went not returned Monday.

Fouratt, who met with federal officials in Artesia last week and spoke to a security supervisor by telephone Monday, offered more details about the facility:

IMMIGRATION CRISIS: Border officials have been overwhelmed by the number of immigrants crossing into the U.S.

  • DHS is contracting with an outside company to provide security inside the center.
  • Security will work in eight-hour shifts, with each shift consisting of 38 uniformed personnel who will not carry guns. “I was pleased to hear the number was that high,” Fouratt said.
  • The federal official Fouratt spoke to Monday morning said the processing of the immigrants thus far “has gone as smooth as glass.”
  • Children in the facility will receive education services but it won’t start until the school year begins and will be done in conjunction with the Artesia School District. The children will be taught inside the facility itself. No word yet on the cost that will be incurred. “That question, I don’t think they know the answer to and if they do, they didn’t give it to me,” Fouratt said.

While taking local elected officials on a tour of FLETC last week, an ICE official told state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, that an estimated 90 percent of the immigrants at the facility eventually will be sent back to their home countries.

But Fouratt said he’s worried that those in the facility — officials at FLETC are calling referring to them as “residents” rather than detainees — who come before an immigration judge and are told they will be deported simply will try to escape by climbing the chain-link fence that surround their living quarters.

“Believe me, if there starts to be an epidemic of people who are going AWOL from FLETC, we’re not going to stay quiet about it because that’s going to be a problem for people,” Fouratt said.

Last week, federal officials said they expect the immigration facility will be open for six-12 months. But the mayors of Artesia and nearby Roswell told New Mexico Watchdog they suspect the facility will process immigrants longer than that.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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