Recently, the Trump administration declared that the U.S. – the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases – is officially withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. This will give yet more encouragement to fossil fuel companies across the West, meaning more money in public coffers and happier times for the politicians who allocate funding.
At my home here in New Mexico, many are giddy about the state’s oil boom. But people also are deeply conflicted about the effects of oil and gas on the climate crisis. We just passed legislation to close down our coal-fired power plants and cities are moving aggressively to reduce their climate footprint. And many do not regard oil and gas development as a desirable neighbor. In Santa Fe County, home to many New Mexicans who are used to having some agency in their lives, the threat of oil and gas development in the Galisteo Basin inspired a moratorium and a tough land-use ordinance that would effectively ban it.
People who live near oil and gas facilities know the full costs of the wealth generated by fossil fuels. They may be affected by air pollution, including air toxins, elevated ozone levels, the danger of explosions, the likelihood of spills and the injection of unknown chemicals into groundwater. Residents are affected by the scraping of land for drill pads, pipelines and other infrastructure, the construction of roads, and the impacts of all this on area wildlife and endangered species. Reclamation of arid desert lands is rarely completed. Energy development also threatens important cultural and archaeology sites; members of the Navajo Nation and TEWA Women United, a group of Pueblo women, are currently fighting to stop fracking in the Greater Chaco region.
Even worse, the continued development of the world’s oil and gas bring us much closer to an unlivable future. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that the industry releases 13 million metric tons of methane each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 85% more destructive than carbon dioxide and, astoundingly, it accounts for a quarter of the climate effects that we’re experiencing now. The Trump administration is rolling back methane rules and emissions are rising. In addition, the burning of oil and gas adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, crippling attempts to limit rising temperatures.
The Southwest is sometimes called the epicenter of climate change in the U.S., although that dubious distinction might be shared with many other regions. But increasing aridification – a clunky word that is more accurate than drought because “normal” times will not return – will hit the region hard. And the consequences will be heartbreaking; in just one example, 100% of all conifers in the Southwest are expected to be gone by 2100.
It’s not easy to know whether we should celebrate our ample oil reserves or bemoan the consequences for our state and the world. Oil and gas development is a particularly thorny topic in New Mexico, an especially poor state that ranks last in public education and first as the worst place to raise a child. New Mexico’s tax structure has long been in need of reform, with heavy dependence on a gross receipts tax and very little use of property or income taxes. As a result, the state relies heavily on the oil and gas revenues that provide one-third of its general fund revenues.
What will New Mexico, a state that just committed to a 100% renewable energy supply for its power plants, do about the energy boom that is exploding in the Permian Basin? It seems supremely unfair that oil, a word synonymous with wealth, is too dirty to mine and burn when this impoverished state needs all the revenue that it can get.
New Mexico and other states that depend on fossil fuels need to wake up from the somnolence that oil wealth is bringing. The boom-and-bust cycle will continue, at least partly because the world is finally transitioning to renewable energy, though the more familiar fluctuation of global markets is also a factor. Other states have diversified their economies and broadened their tax bases, and it is urgent that oil-rich states do the same. Finally, the state must listen to those who are negatively affected by development and show itself accountable for the high costs of oil and gas, as well as the revenues.
National leaders have begun to call for a moratorium on new development on federal lands. This is a much-needed first step, one that points to the federal government’s role in subsidizing oil and gas through accelerated leasing on our public lands, as well as the role energy exports play in degrading these lands. Federal policies have long promoted oil and gas development. It’s time they did a better job of helping states with the energy transition, too, much as we are slowly attempting to do in Appalachia and other regions hit by declining coal production.
Denise Fort is the former secretary of finance and administration for New Mexico and an emerita professor of law at the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is now a climate activist in New Mexico. This article was first published in High Country News HCN (hcn.org) on Nov. 12.