New Mexico’s U.S. Senate race has emerged as a battleground in the nationwide, election-year fight over the future of coal in America.
Senate candidates Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, and Heather Wilson, a Republican, have sparred repeatedly in recent weeks over coal, an abundant source of fossil fuel that accounts for 70 percent of New Mexico’s electricity production and, according to federal regulators, a significant portion of the state’s air quality problems.
In addition to New Mexico, coal is factoring into political races from Ohio to West Virginia to the White House.
In the presidential contest, Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign has accused President Barack Obama of waging a “war on coal” that would hurt the U.S. economy and cost thousands of jobs. Obama has said coal will remain an important part of the nation’s energy mix if he is elected to a second term.
In New Mexico, Wilson contends that, if Heinrich is elected to the U.S. Senate, he would turn his back on a coal industry that provides the state’s residents with affordable electricity and more than 1,300 mining jobs, according to the National Mining Association.
“Coal is not a fuel of the past; it’s a fuel of today and tomorrow,” said Wilson, who held the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District seat from 1998 to 2008. “It’s inexpensive, reliable, and we’ve got a 300-year supply of it here in the U.S.”
Heinrich, who is serving a second term in the 1st District seat, acknowledged that coal is currently an important part of New Mexico’s energy mix, but he said the fossil fuel should be phased out of long-term plans for powering the state. Heinrich contends that coal-fired power plants – like the San Juan plant in northwestern New Mexico and Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. – generate greenhouse gases that many scientists say are hastening climate change. “I just don’t think coal is the energy of the future,” Heinrich said. “Those jobs are important to the people working in the industry. I get that. But in terms of where we should be making policy investments to change our energy portfolio over time, I think we should be investing in … a cleaner energy future.”
In 2010, New Mexico was the 13th-largest producer of coal in the U.S., generating 2 percent of the nation’s production, according to the National Mining Association.
Most of the new Mexico’s coal is in the northern part of the state, primarily in the San Juan and Raton basins.
The United States boasts the largest reserves of coal in world and is a net exporter. In 2011, U.S. coal mines produced more than a billion short tons of coal, with 90 percent of that used by U.S. power plants.
While coal has been the largest source of electricity generation in America for more than 60 years, its annual share of generation declined from 49 percent in 2007 to 42 percent in 2011 as some power producers switched to lower-priced natural gas, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
New Mexico is the nation’s sixth-largest producer of natural gas, which emits only half of the greenhouse gases of burned coal. Heinrich and Wilson agree that New Mexico’s large reserves of natural gas should be tapped in an environmentally sound way to help meet the state’s energy needs and provide good jobs.
Wilson said coal-fired power plants are dramatically cleaner than they were three decades ago and technology could curb emissions even more. The former congresswoman said she supports federal investment in technologies to develop “clean coal,” as well as research and development to better capture and dispose of – or “sequester” – emissions from coal-fired utilities.
“We can use the energy we’ve been blessed with, keep jobs here, keep costs low for energy and protect the environment we love,” Wilson said. “We don’t have to choose.”
Heinrich said the notion of clean coal is a “marketing campaign” by the coal industry that hasn’t proved realistic. He said he would oppose federal subsidies for clean coal research and development.
“I don’t support federal subsidies for clean coal because I just haven’t seen any real outcomes from that research to date,” the congressman said.
However, Heinrich said he would encourage private-sector coal producers and utilities to pursue the technological breakthroughs with their own money.
“Whether it might be possible to sequester carbon from coal in the future and reduce its relatively large pollution footprint compared to other energy sources, that’s a technical question,” he said. “This is a mature industry that can afford to make its own bets about the energy mix of the future.”
Wilson and Heinrich parted ways over coal’s impact on the Earth’s temperatures.
Wilson said science suggesting that climate change, or the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, is caused by pollutants, such as coal emissions, is inconclusive.
“To make huge decisions that would have tremendous consequences for jobs, the economy and our culture and future based on science that is pretty limited seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse,” Wilson said. “I think we have a lot of science left to do on what is the cause of this warming in the last 70 years.
“I think it probably has something to do with that big orb in the sky called the sun,” Wilson said.
Heinrich said the science on climate change is sound.
“As we see bigger and bigger economic impacts from climate change, there will be more and more pressure to do something about that,” Heinrich said. “In New Mexico, we are already seeing the impact of climate change on our ability to store snowpack (for water supplies). Those are very real and distressing economic realities.
“Sticking your head in the sand and becoming part of the flat-Earth movement is no way to meet those challenges,” he said. “I believe embracing science is the best way to set the policy.”
Although Heinrich said he wants to phase coal out of New Mexico’s energy mix, he did not suggest a deadline. His campaign also declined to cite a date.
The Sierra Club, which has contributed to a nearly $2 million environmental group ad campaign to defeat Wilson in the general election, wants to see coal-fired power replaced with clean energy technologies nationally by 2030. A spokeswoman for Heinrich declined to endorse or oppose that deadline.
“It’s time to get this transition started,” said Shrayas Jatkar, a spokesman for the Sierra Club’s New Mexico chapter. “No one is saying shut down all (coal-fired power in New Mexico) in the next four years, but we need to move beyond fossil fuels.”
Jatkar also said Heinrich was the first candidate the Sierra Club endorsed in the 2012 election cycle.
“I couldn’t think of a better champion of clean energy in terms of a Senate candidate right now,” Jatkar said. “We definitely see him as one of us.”
Oil, gas and mining companies have contributed about $322,000 to Wilson’s Senate campaign in the 2012 election cycle, according to Opensecret.org, a Washington group that tracks money in politics.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also has weighed in on the race, running television ads that criticize Heinrich for supporting legislation to curb coal-fired emissions that the chamber and Wilson contend will raise energy prices for New Mexico consumers.
Environmental interests have donated about $151,000 directly to Heinrich’s campaign, according to Opensecrets.org. That’s in addition to the nearly $2 million environmental group ad buy against Wilson.
Valerie Smith, spokeswoman for Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest electricity provider, said the coal-reliant company will strive to adhere to whatever laws are passed regulating power plant emissions. For example, the company is on track to meet a law passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 2007 that directs investor-owned utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable energy resources, such as wind, solar and geothermal, by 2020.
But Smith warned that shifting too quickly away from coal could create reliability problems.
“When we survey our customers and ask them what matters most, reliability always tops the list,” Smith said. “Moving too aggressively to shut down coal could cause some reliability issues.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal