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Editorial: U.S., NM can’t afford to keep their futures ‘in the ground’

There’s something deceptively appealing about ultimatums, the black-and-white totality of a “Just Say No” or “Keep it in the Ground” campaign.

But despite their simplistic appeal, every parent of a teenager will tell you ultimatums rarely work unless the proper supports are in place. Studies show former first lady Nancy Reagan’s zero-tolerance anti-drug campaign failed in part because teens lacked the social skills to stand up to peer pressure; instead, the incarcerations of young people, especially poor, minority young people, skyrocketed.

And the math shows the United States gets 40 percent of all its electricity generation and 21 percent of all of its energy from coal. Just saying no to coal and natural gas ignores the realities that new technologies have made processing coal today much cleaner, that natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than coal, and when compared to renewables, both are much cheaper, can reliably produce electricity 24/7, and can be transmitted almost universally in the United States on existing infrastructure.

Then, there’s that little issue of folks expecting the lights, air conditioning, heat and ignition to work when they flip a switch or turn a key.

So the deception behind the “Keep it in the Ground” movement is that it ignores how a country that freaks out when there’s no cellphone service will react when hospitals don’t have power and people don’t have jobs.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study says ending all fossil fuel production on federal lands – nearly 25 percent of America’s oil and gas production – would turn off about $11.3 billion in annual royalties for federal and state governments and up to 380,000 jobs.

Closer to home, New Mexico derives 12.5 percent of its general fund revenue from what comes out of the ground – i.e. oil and natural gas. And that isn’t counting the big chunks of those revenues that go into the state’s permanent funds to finance everything from public schools to hospitals to prisons.

Keeping it in the ground on federal lands would cost New Mexico about $500 million, or 8.4 percent of total general fund revenues, and up to 24,000 jobs, according to the chamber report. Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming and chair of the state Legislative Finance Committee, says, “The impact would be monumental. Direct and indirect taxes from oil and gas development in New Mexico account for about one-third of total government revenue.”

And Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, is pragmatic when she says, “I support solar and wind, but we need all sources of energy, and we can’t keep oil and gas off limits. We need those dollars.”

Around 400 groups are behind a nationwide “Keep it in the Ground” campaign to ban all new leases for oil and gas on federal lands, while some Democratic U.S. senators – mostly from Eastern states – are pushing a “Keep it in the Ground Act” to ban new leasing and cancel existing leases that aren’t yet producing.

Again, there is an appeal to the ultimatum. It’s easy.

Too easy.

Because, despite the good intention of trying something significant to forestall climate change, for the reasons stated above, it just doesn’t, won’t, can’t work.

Conservationists and congressmen would do better to focus on a true “all of the above” energy strategy – what former N.M. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman advocated over the years. One that would provide reliability now and a bridge to expanded renewables – and that includes zero-carbon-emissions nuclear energy.

It’s not the easy message of “Keep it in the Ground,” but it keeps the nation in a good place as technological developments expand solar and wind capabilities.

And it’s one that will keep the nation running until keeping it in the ground makes sense.

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.