2024 Western States Legislative Wrap-up

Jun 27, 2024

By Rachael Hamby

Over the past five months, state legislatures in Western states have been engaged in a dizzying flurry of legislative activity. Given the importance of public lands and natural resource issues in the West, legislators in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming all considered bills on land conservation, energy development, water conservation, and other related topics. (The Montana and Nevada legislatures did not meet this year.) Approaches to state-level land conservation policy vary widely. Colorado continued to show leadership on oil and gas regulation, wildlife habitat protection, and water conservation. Utah desperately tried to prop up fossil fuels while competing with Arizona to pass the most anti-federal government messaging bills. Most of New Mexico’s pro-conservation bills died in the extremely short budget session. Idaho and Wyoming managed to steer clear of the most damaging ideas, ending their sessions with mixed bags of policy outcomes for conservation. Read on for a highlight reel of state-level policy advances and setbacks from the 2024 legislative sessions.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve via Flickr

Policy and funding wins for conservation and outdoor recreation

Though the Arizona legislature failed to include a proposed $10 million appropriation for the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund (HB 2319 Appropriation; heritage fund) in the final budget, lawmakers did include $100,000 (down from an original $250,000) for maintenance and preservation of the Arizona Trail. In a year when Arizona mortgaged its House, Senate, and Supreme Court buildings to help balance the budget, protecting this small investment in the final budget is a win of sorts.

In a significant victory for land conservation, energy transition, and climate, Colorado passed SB24–230 Oil and Gas Production Fees which imposes new fees on oil and gas production and directs revenues to land, wildlife, and habitat conservation and restoration, as well as clean transit projects. Beginning in July 2025, every oil and gas producer in the state will pay two new quarterly production fees — one for clean transit, one for wildlife and land remediation — based on average oil and gas spot prices. This will result in an estimated annual revenue of $59 million by FY2026–27 for the wildlife and land remediation fund (about one-third of the total estimated revenue from the two fees). In another conservation funding win in Colorado, SB24–126 Conservation Easement Income Tax Credit makes Colorado’s conservation easement program and tax credit permanent, and increases the cap on the total value of conservation easement tax credits that may be claimed from the current $45 million, gradually increasing to $75 million by 2026 and in subsequent years.

Idaho passed the Sustainable Management of National Forests Act, which calls for a “balanced approach” to forest management “to fulfill relevant ecological, economic, and social functions,” recognizing the importance of forests and wildfire risk management for watershed health and drinking water quality. The legislature also passed the Rangeland Improvement Act, which creates an account for projects that address rangeland improvement, control of predatory animals, management of invasive vegetation, and watershed protection, though no actual funds were appropriated into the account this session. The Agricultural Protection Area Act creates a new agricultural protection area designation, oversight commission, and process intended to provide a voluntary option that landowners can apply for in order to preserve agricultural land.

New Mexico scored a major victory with the appropriation of $300 million to the Conservation Legacy Permanent Fund, often referred to as the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund. The major investment in the fund via the state budget reflects its popularity in the state and brings New Mexico’s state-level dedicated conservation funding closer to meeting the state’s conservation needs in the future. Meanwhile, anti-conservation bills in New Mexico were introduced but went nowhere. SB 172 Forest Conservation Act and Timber would have removed the authority of the Forestry Division to acquire land or interest in land by gift or by purchase. SB 173 Natural Heritage Conservation Act Changes would have removed the ability to use this program’s funds for conservation or agricultural easements and made other changes making the program more difficult to use. SB 198 Game Commission Land and Water Acquisitions would have required that the State Game Commission obtain approval from the state legislature for any proposed land or water acquisition. None of these bills received a hearing in any committee.

Wyoming put in place an administrative framework to begin using money in the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund, created in 2023 with a $6 million appropriation but with no structure or procedures to actually use the money. HB 67 Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund Administration, signed by Governor Mark Gordon, adds many of these needed details, paving the way for the state to begin actually using the fund to improve outdoor recreation access. Legislators also approved $2.2 million in spending from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust for three projects to support rangeland and river restoration (SF 60 2024 large project funding).

The Intermountain Power Plant, arbyread via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Oil, gas, and coal

In addition to SB24–230 Oil and Gas Production Fees (mentioned above) which imposes new fees on oil and gas production and directs revenues to land, wildlife, and habitat conservation and restoration, Colorado also passed SB24–229 Ozone Mitigation Measures, which enacts a variety of measures aimed at reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides (which contribute to ozone pollution) by the oil and gas industry by 50 percent (relative to 2017 levels) by 2030. Oil and gas activity is a main source of ozone-forming pollution in the state, and in November 2022 the Denver metro and northern Front Range areas were classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “severe” nonattainment area for 2008 ozone standards.

In New Mexico, several bills were introduced that would have made important reforms to the state’s oil and gas laws. HB 48 Oil and Gas Future Royalty Rate would have increased the royalty rate for oil and gas removed from state lands to one quarter of the revenue of the oil or gas produced. HB 133 Oil and Gas Act Changes would have increased bonding requirements, codified into law the state’s new methane capture regulations, and granted the Oil Conservation Division the authority to regulate and block the transfer of wells from larger to smaller operators if the risk of abandonment was found to be high, an important measure intended to reduce the number of abandoned wells in the future. Neither of these bills passed.

In Utah, legislators doubled down on fossil fuel development in the state to such a desperate extent that even a coal-fired power plant owner-operator asked them to stop (they didn’t listen). SB 161 Energy Security Amendments is a complicated bill designed to prevent the closure of the Intermountain Power Plant, a coal-fired plant, by allowing the state to buy it in hopes that a third party would eventually buy it from the state, despite the current owner being unable to find a buyer for years. Intermountain Power Agency (IPA), the entity that owns the Intermountain Power Plant, had asked Governor Spencer Cox to veto the bill since IPA has already invested in building natural gas-fueled plants after failing to find a buyer for the plant. Keeping the plant open threatens to disrupt these plans and investments which the company has already made. The requirements of SB 161 would also conflict with commitments IPA has made to the EPA as a condition of receiving its permits, inviting litigation and other serious consequences. To address these problems, the legislature had to hold a special session to pass HB 3004 Energy Security Adjustments that makes some changes to help IPA comply with its federal obligations, though more tweaks may still be needed in the 2025 session.

Cedar Creek Wind Farm, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Renewable energy and other emerging energy technologies

Acknowledging the importance of thoughtful planning for renewable energy projects, Colorado passed SB24–212 Local Govs Renewable Energy Projects which puts a framework in place to ensure that wildlife habitats are being considered, and the impacts to wildlife are mitigated, during the process of siting renewable energy facilities. The bill directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife to identify high-priority habitats and provide best management practices to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts of renewable energy projects on wildlife. The bill also requires the development of codes and ordinances for renewable energy projects that local governments can adopt.

In New Mexico, HB 41 Clean Transportation Fuel Standards creates a clean transportation fuel standard program with a goal of annually decreasing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels used in the state, making New Mexico the fourth state in the country to enact these standards. HB 91 Geothermal Resources Project Funds creates a new geothermal project development fund that can make grants for cost/benefit studies of geothermal projects or for financing a geothermal development project, with $2.5 million in funding, as well as a geothermal projects revolving loan fund to provide revolving loans to finance geothermal development projects, with its own additional $2.5 million in funding.

Despite a professed all-of-the-above energy strategy, Utah lawmakers continued their legislative picking of energy winners and losers. SB 257 Geothermal Energy Production Amendments, which would have required a study on accelerating geothermal energy development, did not pass. And in one of the most puzzling bills in any Western state this session, HB 215 Home Solar Energy Amendments uses a technique more commonly used to manage the sale of items that can be especially dangerous when purchased on impulse, such as guns, requiring a four-business-day waiting period after a homeowner signs a contract with a solar retailer before solar panels can be installed. (Utah does not require any waiting period whatsoever for gun purchases in the state.)

In Wyoming, the legislature killed an effort to remove the existing three-year tax exemption for wind-generated energy. The current tax exemption is designed to incentivize wind energy development by giving developers an exemption from an energy production tax for the first three years to help developers recoup some of the upfront costs of development. After this three-year period, they would then be subject to an energy production tax. Two bills that proposed to repeal this exemption — HB 109 Wind tax exemption — repeal and the corresponding SF 116 Wind tax moratorium exemption — repeal — both failed. Legislators also attempted to sweep funding for the Energy Matching Funds program and move money for that program into other state programs. The Energy Matching Funds program was created in 2022 for the governor to award matching funds to help attract innovative energy projects (such as carbon sequestration and hydrogen production) to the state. The final state budget bill restored a $350 million appropriation (down from the original $400 million) to the program.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, markVgti via Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Water

In a significant victory for the protection of streams and wetlands in Colorado, HB24–1379 Regulate Dredge and Fill Activities in State Waters is the first state-level legislation in the country to address the gap created by the Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency Supreme Court decision which has left state waters and wetlands newly unprotected by federal regulations. The bill requires the development of a state program that is at least as protective as the federal Clean Water Act and that prioritizes avoidance and minimization of adverse impacts, and compensation for unavoidable adverse impacts, of discharging material into state waters, including wetlands.

One of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s marquee initiatives was a proposed “strategic water supply” which would have used state funding to create a reserve of fracking wastewater. Announced last December, the original plan called for the state to invest $500 million to finance acquisitions of treated wastewater that could then be available to businesses and industries that can use brackish water. By creating a reserve of treated wastewater, the proposal aimed to reduce pressure on freshwater sources while attracting water-reliant industries (for example, hydrogen production) to the state. After this proposal was removed from a capital outlay spending package earlier in the session, the proposal was introduced as SB 294 Strategic Water Supply Program which proposed $100 million (down from the original $500 million) for the program, but ultimately died in committee.

One of the most important water-related bills in Utah this session was HB 453 Great Salt Lake Revisions, signed by Governor Cox. In a state that is generally reluctant to impose any regulations on industry, the bill actually increases regulations on water use by mining operations at Great Salt Lake, requiring testing and reporting of salinity levels for discharged water, and increasing the severance tax on minerals extracted. Critics remain concerned that companies are still not required to put back as much water as they take out, and that there are no measures in the bill that would increase the amount of water coming into and staying in the lake. HB 535 Water Conservation Modifications, which did not pass, might have attempted to partially address this by requiring the Great Salt Lake Commissioner to conduct a study of water conservation strategies that could increase municipal water delivered to the Great Salt Lake. However, regulating industrial water use from the lake at all, when they could have in theory drained the lake completely dry under previous law, is a step in the right direction.

Bears Ears National Monument, Bureau of Land Management

Anti-federal government and anti-conservation measures

Arizona saw the introduction of a variety of bills that were anti-conservation, anti-federal government, or both. HB 2021 Conservation easements; in lieu payments would have required conservation easement holders to make annual payments in lieu of taxes on the reduction in the original value of the parcel caused by the placement of the conservation easement; this bill did not pass the House. HB 2376 Federal government; land acquisition; consent would have required the consent of both the governor and the legislature for any sale or transfer of private land to the federal government; this bill passed both chambers but was vetoed by Governor Katie Hobbs. The legislature also passed several far-fetched memorials, non-binding messaging vehicles that purport to express the sentiment of the legislature but do not have the force of law. HCM 2005 Federal lands; transfer to states recycles a classic anti-public lands extremist idea that federal land should be transferred to the states to manage (or, more likely, sell off). HCM 2006 Federal lands; natural resources; permission asks Congress to enact legislation prohibiting the federal government from creating any new national parks, national monuments, or any other designation within Arizona without the authorization of the Arizona legislature and all impacted counties. HCM 2007 Grand Canyon Footprints monument; repeal requests that the recent designation of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni-Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument be revoked. And HCM 2008 Urging Congress; Antiquities Act; repeal asks Congress to repeal or significantly weaken the Antiquities Act and requests that no new national monuments be established in Arizona without the authorization of the legislature and all impacted counties.

The Idaho legislature passed a non-binding memorial expressing opposition to the Bureau of Land Management’s Conservation and Landscape Health Rule, which recognizes conservation as a land use on equal footing with other uses of BLM-managed public lands. (The BLM published the final rule shortly after the conclusion of Idaho’s legislative session.)

Utah legislators continued in their tradition of considering a variety of creative measures aimed at reducing the federal government’s power and asserting greater state control over national public lands. Dragging state employees into the war on the federal government, SB 57 Utah Constitutional Sovereignty Act, signed by Governor Cox, prohibits state agency employees from enforcing federal directives if the Utah legislature determines that the directive violates the principles of state sovereignty (defined as restricting or infringing upon powers or rights reserved to the state by the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or the state’s rights or interests to provide for the health, safety and welfare of its inhabitants and to promote their prosperity). Utah passed a number of other anti-federal government bills, including: HB 470 Federal Agency Regulatory Review Amendments which anticipates the overturning of the longstanding “Chevron doctrine”; HB 496 Public Land Use Amendments which attempts to fight the Bureau of Land Management’s Public Lands Rule; and several others.

Wyoming considered several anti-federal government bills and passed three, of which two became law and one was vetoed by Governor Gordon. In the context of federal programs for which the state has primary enforcement authority, or primacy, HB 35 Limitation on environmental rulemaking, signed by Governor Gordon, prohibits the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council from promulgating any rules or regulations that are more stringent than federal laws or regulations, unless the Department of Environmental Quality has identified and stated a need for more stringent rules. HB 36 Natural Resource Protection Act, signed by Governor Gordon, states that if the governor of Wyoming determines that a federal executive order, rule, or regulation does not comply with federal land management laws, no state personnel or funds may be used to enforce or administer that federal executive order, rule, or regulation. With SF 13 Federal land use plans — legal actions authorized, the legislature attempted to authorize itself to, separately from the Wyoming attorney general, take legal action to challenge federal land use plans and federal purchases of land within Wyoming. The legislature also proposed to allow itself to borrow $75 million from the state’s legislative stabilization reserve account to fund the pursuit of these legal challenges. This bill was vetoed by Governor Gordon, who explained in his veto message that he vetoed the bill because the legislature’s legal efforts would have been duplicative of the attorney general’s and therefore not in keeping with the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, and because $75 million was “not fiscally conservative.”

McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area, BLM Wyoming

Takeaways and looking to next year

In 2025, the New Mexico and Wyoming legislatures will hold longer general sessions (as opposed to the shorter budget sessions that were held this year) and will not be restricted to budget-related bills. This gives legislators in those states more opportunities to introduce policy bills, and more time to try to get them passed. The Montana and Nevada legislatures, which meet every other year, will also hold their sessions in 2025. Western states are likely to continue to respond to policy shifts and funding opportunities at the federal level, and the outcome of the upcoming election in November 2024 will only magnify those responses. The resurgence of anti-federal government extremist ideas, led by Arizona and Utah, may build and spread to other states as legislators dig through each others’ recycling bins to find anti-conservation bill ideas. But as Colorado has shown, another path is possible — one in which state policymakers align with voters in their states, who consistently express support for public lands and conservation, and demonstrate that state-level policy leadership can drive meaningful conservation outcomes in the West.

Feature image: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, BLM Utah