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Editorial: From energy to nuclear science, space to technology, NM’s economic outlook has megawatt promise

Could New Mexico, the perennially poor kid on the block, at long last be on the verge of a permanent economic turnaround? Could we be on the road to an economy where instead of having nearly half the population on Medicaid, we would be on equal economic footing – or better – with Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Utah?

The stars might just be aligning in that direction.

And in a way it’s ironic if it isn’t the holy grail of a diversified economy that delivers a long-term, robust economy where more people work at good-paying jobs than rely on government benefits. Instead, it could very well be the result of the basic economic forces that have sustained us for decades: energy, technology and science.

• At the top of the list is the incredible oil find in the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico and West Texas. Not only has it given the United States important leverage in the international oil markets, protecting us from the vagaries of Middle East despots, it is a bonanza for the state and its people.

ExxonMobil estimates there will be 6,500 new wells drilled on New Mexico’s side of the basin – “the engine of America’s energy renaissance” – generating between $64 billion and $83 billion in DIRECT revenue to the state in taxes and royalties over the next 40 years. On top of that, there will be thousands of new jobs and additional billions of dollars generated in economic activity.

None of this interferes with the state’s move under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to dramatically increase the amount of renewable energy we use. But it does provide long-term funding to build world-class infrastructure, including an education system that has student achievement as its primary goal.

• Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque has announced plans to hire 1,900 people – with 1,100 of those being new positions – as the nuclear weapons lab gears up modernization work on the nation’s stockpile. Sandia already has about 11,000 employees in Albuquerque, and the boost will also lead to more spin-off economic impact with contractors and others doing business with the lab. It is a huge shot in the arm for the metro area.

• Virgin Galactic announced last month it is moving its flight operations to Spaceport America north of Las Cruces. The company hopes to launch tourists into space in the next year or so, putting New Mexico at the forefront of a new frontier. Should Virgin Galactic succeed, the state’s $220 million bet on the spaceport could pay off many times over as we become a pioneer in commercial space travel.

• Technology giant Intel announced earlier this month it is adding 300 jobs to its Rio Rancho plant. Intel said the facility – often rumored to be on the chopping block as its mission and workforce shrank over the years – said the facility “continues to be an important part of Intel’s global manufacturing network.”

Some of the state’s good fortune is the result of longtime efforts by our leaders – including former Govs. Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – on several fronts, including working with the energy industry, securing federal money and building and funding a Spaceport, and in the face of pockets of outright political hostility. Some of it is just plain luck. Who would have thought we would be sitting on a world-class oil reserve just a decade after some experts were predicting the “end of oil?”

It will be up to our political and business leaders, starting with our governor, congressional delegation and legislators, to take advantage of the lucky cards we have been dealt while continuing to build on other strengths like tourism, art and recreation. The state has got to fix education and deal with crime. Oil and gas need regulation but shouldn’t be treated as the enemy. Our leaders should acknowledge there is no need to tap into our future generations’ permanent fund to pay for programs. There is more money available now than we can spend effectively, and if anything, the energy bonanza provides the opportunity to make the fund an even bigger contributor to New Mexico’s future, as the bigger the corpus, the larger the payouts.

There is a bright future out there for New Mexico – if only we have the foresight and tenacity to claim and capitalize on it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.