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Editorial: NM on a tightrope between environmental responsibilities and reliance on energy dollars

The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. (Journal)

The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. (Journal)

New Mexicans paying attention to energy news last week saw the Trump administration ramping up its efforts to undo “everything Obama” – in this case withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and pushing to reverse coal regulations. At the same time New Mexico works to fill that void in environmental leadership, it’s raking in revenue from a record oil boom.

A Journal story Thursday noted oil production in southeast New Mexico is set to obliterate its own record for the third year in a row.

Up in the northwest corner of the state, Public Service Company of New Mexico is continuing long, drawn-out attempts to shut down its coal-fired San Juan Generating Station – a plant that privately owned Enchant Energy Corp. is working to acquire and transform into one of the nation’s first clean-burning, carbon-capture facilities that in turn would ship the CO2 to the Permian for use in oil extraction.

In Santa Fe, lawmakers are chafing at state regulatory oversight and threatening legal action in order to fast-track the Energy Transition Act, which commits the state to zero carbon emissions from electricity by 2045.

In Friday’s Journal, we learned the state Environment Department has begun notifying oil companies if their emissions are too high, even as it devises a methane rule.

And in a column scheduled to be published in Tuesday’s Journal, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham renews her promises to double down on environmental protections at the state level.

Welcome to the dichotomy that is our state’s new environmental/economic normal.

There are plenty of moving parts in the global energy dance, but a few broad-strokes takeaways for New Mexican residents and leaders:

First, coal may still be responsible for powering much of China, but here in the U.S. the numbers just don’t add up. It makes less and less sense for investors to fund coal productions, and while environmental regulations may have added to that trend, they certainly didn’t drive it. As has been noted time and again, market forces have been pushing cheaper and cleaner natural gas for some time now.

That’s part of the reason the Trump administration’s headlong pursuit of rolling back regulations on coal is so ill-advised – market tides are continuing to turn toward natural gas anyway. Overall coal production is at its lowest level in nearly 40 years and employment in the sector is at a record low.

Perhaps more importantly, these regulations on coal serve an essential purpose. It’s 2019, and major fossil fuel companies including British Petroleum and Chevron have publicly acknowledged the reality of human-driven climate change. Energy producers and their regulators around the world have the obligation to do their part to combat the climate crisis.

The United States doesn’t need elimination of coal regulations; it needs smart, sensible regulations for all energy production – regulations based on scientific research, not political expediency on either side of the aisle.

That was the message New Mexico Oil and Gas Association president Ryan Flynn sounded at a recent event. He criticized the either/or approach most often heard in the national debate – either you support total bans on different types of energy production or you favor getting rid of all regulations. For example, a ban on fracking would only move production to other countries with far fewer environmental regulations – thus increasing harmful effects on the global climate. At the same time, gutting environmental regulations would also move us away from our goal of protecting the climate.

Striking the right balance is especially crucial in New Mexico, where more than a third of our state budget depends on natural gas and oil production dollars and lawmakers are busy making lists for how to spend the additional billions headed their way. It’s a conversation that needs all parties at the table.

The governor notes in her column that she is representing New Mexico as part of the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is demanding “meaningful climate action and environmental protections at the state level.” While it would clearly be better to have consistent protections at a federal level in the interest of public health and a level playing field – our air knows no state lines, after all – the alliance is taking on an important task in this vacuum of national leadership.

Lujan Grisham is a committed environmental advocate who knows perfectly well the impacts regulatory policies will have on the energy industry in New Mexico, and, as a result, on the state budget and her many campaign promises. It’s an unenviable tightrope, but by including everyone affected in the conversation, the governor, her Cabinet and New Mexico lawmakers should have the information needed to walk it successfully with other like-minded states.

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.

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