It was July 1, 1969. Representatives of Public Service Company of New Mexico and Tucson Gas and Electric signed an agreement to partner on the San Juan Generating Station. The first unit would be 330 megawatts and the two entities would evenly share the ownership and power generated. More than half a century later, the power plant they agreed to build is shutting down this week and for many of the activists who have fought against the coal-fired facility the moment feels a bit bittersweet.
In the past seven months, oil and gas companies have dramatically stepped up their outreach and public relations spending at some of New Mexico’s best-known, best-loved events. The industry also picked up an additional public relations bump from the not unexpected news that oil and gas revenues will add an additional $2.5 billion to next year’s state government budget. This record breaking funding comes on the heels of last year’s record breaking budget, both of them courtesy of record breaking oil and gas production and record breaking oil and gas prices. All of this money sloshing around the state raises the positive public profile of the petroleum industry. Meanwhile, the public sees little of its state Legislature — but that doesn’t mean it’s not busy.
On a sweltering day at the end of July, Mike Amos crouched by his tent, fiddling with a few car batteries powered by solar panels that sat on the bottom rack of a shopping cart. Amos used them to charge his phone, e-cigarettes and an electric skillet while living at Albuquerque’s Coronado Park, where he has stayed for much of the last six years. He had a couple of other carts filled with his belongings, along with a bicycle and a brindle Tennessee hound named Skittles. “Compared to the rest of society, I’m a dirtbag,” he said. “But for here, I live pretty good.”
On any given night, some 70 to 120 people stayed in the park that had become the face of Albuquerque’s homeless crisis, with a reputation as a haven for drug use, violence and poor sanitation.
Democratic members of Congress from New Mexico and Colorado sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation urging the agency to prioritize funding for long-term solutions to the Colorado River Basin water crisis. This comes as the Bureau has $4 billion in funding allocated by the Inflation Reduction Act to address drought in the west. “The [Colorado] River is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, with nearly 40 million people reliant on the water resources across seven states and 30 Tribes,” the letter states. U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, both from New Mexico, and U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury, also from New Mexico, joined Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet and Reps.
A consortium led by Los Alamos National Laboratory is using federal funding provided to find orphaned wells and help states prioritize plugging efforts. The Infsatructure Investment and Jobs Act included $30 million to establish the consortium, which is tasked with developing technologies and best practices that will be used to locate undocumented orphaned wells, characterizing the construction of the wells determining how much methane they are emitting as well as looking at wellbore integrity and environmental impact.
The consortium includes the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.
LANL’s Hari Viswanathan is the lead scientist overseeing the multi-national-lab effort.
“I think [orphaned wells are] a very impactful problem and it is sort of a grand challenge because there’s a lot of these wells out there and they’re pretty challenging to detect,” he said. “That actually requires leading edge science to do that.”
He said there are an estimated hundreds of thousands of orphaned wells nationwide and addressing them has bipartisan support. “You don’t want these wells polluting people’s land,” he said. “You also don’t want the climate impacts of these wells.”
Orphaned wells are essentially wells that, for reasons like age and bankruptcy of the company that operated them, now have no owner of record.
Local communities need to prepare for the impacts of climate change, New Mexico State Climatologist David DuBois said during the Four Corners Air Quality Group meeting Wednesday in Farmington. The air quality group consists of state agencies from Colorado, Utah and New Mexico as well as federal and tribal agencies working together to address air quality in the Four Corners region.
This group started more than 15 years ago. At the time, the area was on the verge of violating federal ozone standards, Michael Baca of the New Mexico Environment Department Air Quality Bureau said. He said the air quality has improved, but ozone levels remain a challenge and federal standards have become more strict.
“We have a tremendous task ahead of us to address the climate challenge,” Claudia Borchert, climate change policy coordinator for NMED, said.
Borchert highlighted the state’s efforts to address emissions including the Energy Transition Act, the natural gas waste rule and the ozone precursor rules.
DuBois provided statistics focused on the northwest corner of the state. Since 1970, the area has warmed on an average rate of 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
At the same time, the southwest United States has been gripped by drought for more than 20 years.
While the drought isn’t as dry as past droughts, DuBois said the warmer temperatures exacerbate the conditions.
“Drought is more complex than just lack of water,” he said.
DuBois said dry soil and increased evaporation means less water is available even when it does rain.