The “Leave It In the Ground” mantra that gained volume during and after the United Nations 2015 climate change conference in Paris now reverberates loudly in New Mexico. Our state is, in fact, leaving it in the ground. Led by Public Service Company of New Mexico, a shift away from fossil fuels has been underway for more than six years —at least for coal mining. But oil and gas production is another matter, apparently a more intractable problem. In that same six-year period, New Mexico has become one of the top three producers of oil in the nation, behind Texas and North Dakota.
Last year, a record 367.8 million barrels of oil were pulled out of the ground in New Mexico, as well as a record 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to records kept by the N.M. Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources.
PNM’s widely publicized move away from burning coal to generate electricity has been incentivized by the State Legislature’s passage of the Energy Transition Act. Signed into law in March 2019, the act requires that at least half of all energy produced by the state’s investor-owned utilities be from renewable sources by 2030, jumping to 80 percent ten years later, and to 100 percent by 2045.
At the time the legislation was signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, it was touted as New Mexico taking the lead nationally in moving away from fossil fuels.
“This is a really big deal,” she said. “In every corner of this state, advocates, utilities, young adults, unions, elected officials and families came together to push for, and today, enact, this transformational law.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez praised the accomplishment as well, saying, “This legislation is a milestone for not just the State of New Mexico and the Southwest, but all of the United States, including tribal communities. This is a gift for our children and children of New Mexico who are yet to be born. Clean energy is the future of our nation.”
To implement the mandates, PNM has already shut down half of the units of its San Juan Generating Station and is scheduled to shut down the remainder by the end of next year. Even so, negotiations have begun for an alternative ownership and management of the same power plant, perhaps operating with a carbon-capture unit. PNM has said it will stop burning coal at its other major power plant, the Four Corners Generating Station by 2031. Already three of its units were shut down, and one of the two remaining is to generate electricity only seasonally starting in 2023.
That still leaves prodigious amounts of fossil fuel use in this state, much of which has been facilitated by decades of federally subsidized production. On that front, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich came out publicly September 23 in favor of terminating those.
In a letter to environmental organizations who had pressed him to take a stand against those federal programs, Heinrich wrote, “You asked for my support for ending fossil fuel subsidies, and you have it.”
The push is on to end oil and gas drilling and production on federal land, a permitting process generally within the purview of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who is a New Mexican.
This fall, Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, said she favors restrictions on future oil and gas production from federal lands, but “we’re not going to stop gas and oil overnight; that’s just an impossibility right now.”
What was possible, and in fact happened, was a temporarily moratorium on oil and gas lease sales on resources under her department’s control. That was done administratively, almost immediately after Joe Biden assumed the presidency.
Although his action was challenged in court, it was ordered so that Interior could conduct a programmatic review of federal leasing and its impact on climate change.
Haaland pointed out that fossil fuel extraction from federal lands accounted for 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions nationwide.
The secretary’s eventual decisions on oil and gas leasing from federal land are likely to face legal challenges. In the meantime, her agency’s issuance of leases dropped from 671 in April of this year to 171 in August.
But the stakes are high. Oil and gas production paid an estimated $2.8 billion into the N.M. Treasury during the past fiscal year, and well over half of that came from production on federal land in this state.
According to the State Land Office, which manages oil and gas leasing on land owned by the State, 96 percent of the $1.2 billion revenue during fiscal year 2021 came from oil and gas.
And then there’s uranium… not a fossil fuel exactly, but saddled with its own intractable problems. The lethal effects of uranium mining, and the need to isolate nuclear power plants’ spent fuel rods from the environment for thousands of years are well known to Interior Secretary Haaland.
Laguna Pueblo experienced some of the state’s worst health effects from exposure to radiation from mining and milling uranium, and associated accidents.
Still, New Mexico ranks second in the United States for uranium ore reserves, estimated at 64 million short tons of ore.
Among factors that could keep uranium in the ground even if a global shunning of fossil fuels is reinforced by agreements in Glasgow: ample reserves of high-grade, low-cost uranium in Canada and Australia compared to those in New Mexico.