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Bold energy policies build strong communities and careers

January 22, 2019

Goals for state energy policy changes fall into two broad categories.

Most energy reforms aim to maintain and increase the quality of life in our communities and households. Rightly configured, such reforms have the potential to create not just thousands of jobs, but tens of thousands. We can build community solidarity, careers and a more resilient infrastructure and society — if we hold to those goals.

Proposals based on utility-scale, investor-owned electricity projects will not achieve these goals. They will make New Mexico poorer and more unequal, not wealthier and stronger in the ways that really matter. Exporting renewable electricity is a terrible idea.

We need to be clear about this, because we are in the midst of a social emergency. New Mexico was recently rated (again) as the worst state in which to raise a family. Better education is important but only part of the picture.

The second big energy goal is to help halt global warming before self-reinforcing feedbacks take over, delivering unstoppable global warming and mass extinctions — including, as would be likely, our own.

The timeline for action is extremely short. The required social transformations are dramatic. We are in an emergency, which threatens the lives and happiness of children today.

Halting global warming requires lowering atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations sufficiently, or else reducing the fraction of solar energy reaching the earth. Lowering emissions is not enough.

New Mexico has the potential for world-class leadership in the fight against global warming. How? Only by cutting back our state’s oil and gas production — which would have global effects.

The greenhouse gas contribution of the oil and gas industry is so huge that cutting back production is basically the only way the state can lead, once coal use is gone. What we do with sustainable transportation, energy efficiency and renewable electricity is important, but smaller, slower and secondary.

Eliminating coal is important, if it is not replaced by gas. The global warming potential of methane supplied by fracking, evaluated over the crucial 20-year period ahead, is greater than coal. Strong methane regulation — which may not be feasible — would help somewhat but will never make gas a clean fuel.

Most oil-producing countries are in permanent decline. More will join. Oil discoveries have been minimal in recent years; “depletion never sleeps.” Since 2005, postwar Iraq and U.S. shale oil released by hydrofracturing (“fracking”) have provided all the world’s net growth.

The largest U.S. shale oil reserves are in the Permian Basin, a third of which lies in New Mexico. As goes the Permian, so goes the U.S. As goes the U.S, so goes the world.

If plucky New Mexico managed to kick its oil and gas addiction, we could go a long way toward waking the world from its fossil fuel nightmare. Conversely, if New Mexico remains the third-largest oil-producing state, with or without methane regulation and notwithstanding all other energy reforms, this state will be a global-warming problem, not a solution.

We could start with a fracking moratorium, pending successful leak reduction. Or, elegantly, a dividend for all taxpayers supported by a hefty greenhouse gas (not carbon) fee.

Oil and gas revenue is an addiction, a resource curse, that keeps New Mexico from having to face the reality that we actually need a social contract, one that includes everybody. We are far from that, materially and attitudinally. We need to do much more than restore the $360 million per year fiscal loss created some 15 years ago by Gov. Bill Richardson and the Legislature when they decided to lower the top income tax rate.

Our state’s twin emergencies are intimately linked. To solve either, we must solve both, and energy policy reforms will play a big role — in success, or failure.

Greg Mello is co-founder and executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque.

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