October 5, 2020

Candidate Q&A: Ben Ray Luján on environmental issues

Rep. Ben Ray Luján

This week, we’re running a series of interviews with New Mexico’s federal candidates, each of whom answered questions about issues related to our energy future, water scarcity and climate change. 

The following interview is with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is running for the U.S. Senate in a seat currently held by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall. Udall announced in March of 2019 that he would not run for reelection.  

Luján, a Democrat, has served as U.S. Rep. for New Mexico’s third congressional district since 2009. In 2019, he was voted  Assistant Speaker of the House by the House Democratic caucus. 

Luján also served on the state’s Public Regulation Commission from 2005-2008 and served as chairman of the commission from 2005 to 2007. 

Luján is running against former TV meteorologist and political newcomer Mark Ronchetti, a Republican, and Bob Walsh, a Libertarian. Ronchetti did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. You can read our Q&A with Walsh here

NM Political Report (NMPR): What energy future do you see for New Mexico and the United States?

Ben Ray Luján: New Mexico has always been a leader with energy, and with investments and working together, we will continue to be a leader into the future. From the time I had the honor of working on the Public Regulation Commission, I was proud to work on initiatives where we worked with New Mexico’s utilities to generate more electricity from the wind, from the sun—I’ve always been an advocate for community solar. So whether we’re investing in concentrated solar arrays, we’re investing in wind, we are investing in being able to export those electrons across the country, and creating good jobs and opportunities, but also making renewable generation more affordable and viable, so that way we can see that grow across New Mexico. And that’s why I’ve been a proponent of community solar. 

New Mexico is also a leader when it comes to initiatives with the [U.S.] Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Defense. When you look at research that’s taking place in New Mexico, it often involves large storage challenges that America, I think, will be a leader on. New Mexico and our national labs will be a part of that, solving the battery storage challenges facing us, number one. Number two, looking at synthetic fuels. There’s been a lot of work and research that’s been done on production with algae, with hemp, with looking at other initiatives to create synthetic fuels, I think that’s an area that New Mexico will continue to be a leader as well. 

Then, there’s the directed energy programs, which the Department of Defense has done a lot of work in. New Mexico has played a big part of that as well. Lastly, I think New Mexico has an opportunity to be a leader when it comes to plugging abandoned oil and gas wells. I think that, working together, we can make those investments, put more people to work to get that done in New Mexico. And also eliminating all of the methane leaks in our state. I think that’s going to be an important area. New Mexico has the worst methane emissions in the country, even though we’re not the top oil and gas producing state in the country. That’s going to be an initiative that needs to be undertaken where I think New Mexico can be a leader by adopting some important practices and again, creating good jobs. 

NMPR: New Mexico and other states have adopted clean energy mandates that phase out fossil fuel energy generation. How will you support these communities as they navigate this tough economic transition?

Ben Ray Luján: It’s going to be critically important that we all work together to continue to create jobs, provide more workforce training initiatives and work directly with workers. Organized labor has been critically important in being at the table and having conversations, especially around the Blue Green Alliance, which is an effort to make sure that we’re reducing emissions across New Mexico and the United States, but also working to create strong jobs and strong workforce training programs around them. 

In New Mexico, where there was a decision by the New Mexico legislature and the governor to provide significant investment into communities for economic development and workforce training programs. That’s going to be a key part of all the work that’s being done in these spaces. 

I am proud to author legislation to provide funding through the Department of Energy to create more workforce training programs in conjunction with the trade through our community colleges, and that will also create more opportunities. We’re continuing to see an expansion around our national labs, but also doing everything we can to attract more manufacturing into our communities as well, throughout every corner of New Mexico. That’s also going to be another area where we can continue to attract opportunities, grow opportunities and leverage our national labs so that the manufacturing jobs are going to be expanding to different parts of New Mexico.

As part of that, looking at economic initiatives that will complement that work, like the United States-Mexico-Canada [trade] agreement, where we’re also seeing expansion in different parts of New Mexico that benefit from those agreements, and that’ll also create more job opportunities. Those are a few areas where we can all work together to be able to close those gaps, strengthen opportunities and make investments in New Mexico. 

NMPR: New Mexico is facing a future of increased aridification and hotter temperatures due to climate change. This is expected to impact New Mexico’s water resources and possibly its water delivery obligations under the various interstate compacts that the state is party to. What will you do to help New Mexico protect its water resources, including the surface waters of our rivers that are subject to interstate compacts, amid a drying climate?

Ben Ray Luján: One of the findings that is consistent across most federal agencies, whether it’s the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, or even the Department of Interior, is the concern of the negative impacts from climate change that is contributing to hotter temperatures and more drought conditions. Hotter temperatures speed up snow melt, for many of us in New Mexico, it’s that snowpack that we count on to use to be able to take advantage of our acequias—those important water systems that provide life in our communities—and it’s also that snowpack that helps to feed our rivers, with the waters that flow from the north all the way down. This is an area that we have to be cognizant of. 

In New Mexico, I’ve always encouraged more partnerships, wherever they may exist, including with our friends and allies in Israel, who have led initiatives and efforts when it comes to water efficiency, water conservation, maximizing agricultural growth, water efficiency and drip initiatives, and also being smart about how they’re able to look at brackish water and make that useful when we are in times of drought or for use in other areas. This is an issue we have to take up and we’re going to have to work on together, through the use of technology, through looking at advancements that we know have been made in other parts of the state or in other parts of the world, and adopting those at home. And further, looking at some of the lawsuits that are currently engaged, which is why these cases going before the U.S. Supreme Court matter so much. Texas is suing New Mexico on water issues. I believe our brothers and sisters in Texas have that case wrong. We’re going to have to use every tool we can to protect our important water resources in New Mexico, whether it comes to looking at that suit, or looking at the negative effects caused by climate change. 

NMPR: What role should the federal government play in conservation on public lands? 

Ben Ray Luján: New Mexico is blessed with public lands, we have some of the most majestic public lands in the United States and there’s a reason why people come from all over the world to visit New Mexico and support our tourism. We’ve been working to expand our outdoor initiatives through the state of New Mexico. But I think the United States has an important role here to protect special places like Chaco and wild rivers. And that’s why I’ve been proud to work on the designation with many areas of protecting our public lands and learning from the work  that Sen. Udall has done. I think that’s the kind of work that we should be doing together and how we bring communities together and stakeholders together. One of the strongest examples that I’ve seen was when the Rio Grande del Norte [Monument] was created. Communities came together that were not originally all on board with that protection and that designation, but ultimately found a way to find agreement through those differences and ultimately come together with what was one of the strongest showings in the United States for how communities can protect these special places. 

NMPR: How will you address the concerns of sovereign indigenous nations over energy production and other activities on or near their lands?

Ben Ray Luján: There’s places where production makes sense, and special places where it doesn’t. Think of the importance of protecting Chaco and the importance of protecting the Grand Canyon. There are efforts by the Trump administration now to go in and increase production in these sacred sites and special places. I’m very proud that I authored legislation to protect Chaco and very proud that I led initiatives on the House floor to protect sacred sites from large corporations that wanted to go in and not work with the tribal leaders, or engage in meaningful consultation with those communities. I’m very proud of my record and I’ll continue to work to protect these special places and sacred sites.