October 7, 2020

Candidate Q&A: Steve Jones on environmental issues

Photo courtesy Steve Jones

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. 

You can find all our congressional candidate interviews here

The following interview is with Steve Jones, who is running for New Mexico’s Second Congressional District seat to the U.S. House of Representatives as an Independent and a write-in candidate.  

Jones is a retired energy executive, and has experience as a business consultant and TV producer. 

Jones is facing Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small and Republican challenger Yvette Herrell for the seat. Herrell did not respond to requests for an interview. Torres Small scheduled an interview with NM Political Report twice for this Q&A but had to cancel both times due to schedule conflicts related to the House of Representatives’ voting schedule. 

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

Steve Jones: The fact is we are using a technology which is controversial and has simultaneously increased our exports to where we’re self-sufficient energy wise, and at the same time, excited a whole lot of people who would rather not have as much energy. My expectation is, depending on the outcome of the election, we will either have a restriction on hydrocarbon production or we will have business as usual. My own prediction is that there will be a restriction on hydrocarbon production. That’ll be true for both the oil and gas producing provinces as well as New Mexico. 

There’s actually multiple technologies that come into play and that would be advanced logging techniques, advanced geophysical techniques, horizontal drilling, which requires drill down hole motor technology and mapping of wellbores—and then of course, last and certainly not least, most controversial is the hydro fracking or super fracking depending upon which area of the world you live in. 

Super fracking, I think, is going to get national guidelines. Right now it’s been largely up to the individual states as to the control of what goes into the borehole and monitoring and the consequences if the fracking fluid goes somewhere it’s not intended to go. So those are issues to be resolved and I think they’re going to have to be resolved regardless of which administration is in power. 

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

Steve Jones: The first answer to that is, with less jobs that are available, there needs to be some cross-training and, regardless of the decrease in the energy industry, New Mexico, and especially southern New Mexico, is sadly in need of an industry-government cooperative for training in the technical skills that would be required to increase their earnings ability. If the energy industry decreases, it just exacerbates an already existing poor rating in terms of per capita income in southern New Mexico. 

We’re among the poorest states—if we’re not the poorest state—gauged by per capita income. So we must take immediate steps, on the top of the COVID-19 displacement of employees, to put people in a position where they can earn more money. For that reason, I believe there should be a national minimum wage of $15 per hour and there should be a federally funded joint venture between industry and government to provide training, along the lines of what the unions provide, which is basically what is called a journeyman’s program—or like in Germany, they have technical training that’s very widespread. As a matter of fact, there are more people in their training program than there are in their colleges. It needs to be that significant.

We have literally tens of thousands of New Mexican youth that come out of high school, and they don’t have to. I don’t believe that you need to have a high school diploma, but you should be able to get a GED, and then go into a program where they’re earning money at the same time as they’re being trained in a valuable skill, funded by industry and the government.

Back to your initial question, that just kind of adds on top of an already existing, very bad problem for New Mexico and the southern New Mexico area.

NMPR: New Mexico is facing a future of increased aridification and hotter temperatures due to climate change. This is expected to impact NM’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?

Steve Jones: It’s not expected—it’s already been happening for years. We’re in the midst of it and we’re not dealing with it. People focus on alluvial water—basically snow, rain, those things that dropped from the atmosphere and landed on the ground. There is certainly a need for better conservation, better management of those sources, but that’s a very small source compared to what is potentially available. 

 I have a significant amount of experience in what we call “making water”—basically it’s just desalinization. Desalinization usually is thought of in terms of communities that are bordering oceans or seas. But New Mexico, and especially eastern New Mexico, is sitting on top of vast oceans of water. Vast oceans. The oceans that have been trapped underground, literally have been there for centuries. When there is a drilling program that penetrates those, they use steel casing to close off that brine water so that it doesn’t interrupt their drilling. I believe that every single wellbore—every single existing wellbore and every wellbore coming forward—should have a salt water table analysis. I’m not talking about the freshwater tables or the aquifers I’m talking about beneath that. 

That would be step one — inventory what we have by way of access to salt water. Step two is to mandate that every single oil and gas producing well provide, on site, either solar or wind or natural gas if they’re flaring, an energy source that will drive pumps. The pump will bring up that water to the surface and run through very specially designed membranes, which are very common—this is not new technology—pressure the salt water through the membranes.  creating two flows. One of them is freshwater, the freshwater then should be, just like oil or gas,  put into a fiberglass tank, and then either trucked to a central point, or they could put in PVC pipe to channel all this water into containment tanks, they can channel it into the Rio Grande River or Colorado River as part of the natural water flows there. 

Those sources of water have been thought about, written about, but it takes an energy regulation to mandate it. This is such an easy thing to solve because right now, there’s natural gas being flared, and that natural gas being flared is an energy source. It could drive the whole distillation process, it would not require any additional money for energy. But it will require capital expenditures, but when you’re taking resources from under the ground, you need to pay back to New Mexico, by virtue of creating a sidestream of freshwater. That’s my answer. 

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

Steve Jones: Your question would be an absolutely valid question three years ago, and maybe two years ago, but this year, to me, it is like saying, ok there is a house that’s on fire, we’re trapped inside, now, do we want cake and ice cream. That’s how I value, right now, the critical nature of COVID-19 and the response that is critical. My answer would be the governmental involvement, relative to public lands, ought to be tabled or put on the back burner—like the Congress does so well, the can needs to be kicked down the road. It’s just not proper timing to give [this] any emphasis at all.  

I do strategic planning, strategic planning basically says, tell me what your problems are and let’s work on the solutions. So if I’m talking about New Mexico, I would say, give me your top 10 problems, and let me start working on solutions—just like we did on freshwater, perfectly good question, it’s absolutely timely, it’s critical. What I never do in strategic planning is go into an entity like New Mexico and say hey, tell me what you are the best at, what is your top ranking, where are you on the top of the list or the top two or three. In other words, you don’t go find out what you’re really good at and then start focusing on solving problems related to what you’re best at. 

It probably doesn’t shock you to know that New Mexico is in the top two or three states in terms of public lands per capita. The reason why that’s not important to me is, population wise, we are almost static, if not decreasing, because of the lack of education, or lack of health care, and the lack of employment. So what we’re doing is we’re being more and more land for less and less people, which means we have more acres per capita than we did in the last census, as an example. The public lands issue, if I were to be dealing with the areas where New Mexico is the weakest would be down the list.

The federal government repeatedly has told New Mexico, look, we’ve got federal lands in New Mexico that you people want to take control of, you want to take over management, you want to be responsible for. And they gave an example two years ago; we had a fire, of which federal lands were involved in New Mexico. We fought the fire and our estimated total cost in fighting that fire was $15 million. And by the way, the last time we checked, the New Mexico State Budget was in a deficit. You don’t have that extra $15 million to have fought that fire. And that’s just a small subset of the total costs that the federal government spends in New Mexico, managing public land. 

This state pride, of we want to have state control over all public lands and protected areas and protected wilderness, etc—it’s a false flag, because we simply cannot afford it. We need to be spending money on our public education, as an example. We need to be spending it on child welfare. New Mexico is 50th—five-zero, last of all the states—for child welfare. Half of all births in the state of New Mexico are to unwed mothers. We have an indigenous people problem that is embarrassing right now, really embarrassing, and COVID-19 highlighted the fact that there are poverty levels pretty much across the Navajo Nation—with no running water in the houses.  I know I’m on a soapbox here but public lands needs to be put in context of what’s really hurting New Mexicans. Having more access to hunting or fishing, or hiking, is not what’s hurting New Mexico. 

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

Steve Jones: New Mexico has some of the strongest rules relative to that. There’s abundant federal court cases regarding indigenous people’s rights to egress, ingress, in other words going into surface damages, even down into royalties. If you allowed an individual group to keep control over all aspects of it, they themselves would be damaged by it. The reason I say that is from experience: I’ve seen firsthand the type of contracts that a reservation or a local indigenous people would negotiate with an energy company. For example, an oil concession to drill frequently is out of touch with what the industry standards are throughout the U.S. 

There’s a whole group of people who are designed to protect indigenous people at the Department of Energy, and the Department of Interior. And as badly as I feel about saying this, I think they should turn over some contractual and supervisory responsibilities, so that they cannot be abused. I can only go to the most recent example of what I’m talking about: The contract that the Navajo Nation did to get COVID-19 facemasks. They negotiated it themselves, they got the contract, the shipment came in. Now, without the federal government standing behind them and saying, hey, you cannot take advantage of these peoples—that might very well have ended badly. As it was, the federal government stepped in and said, no, you sent them inferior materials, these are not protecting them, and you saw in the press, which did an excellent job of bringing this matter to light, we saw the federal government actually saved the day, if you will, in terms of issues on the mask. 

The same type of—I hate to use the term but—big brother approach to contract management for any of the minerals, that would be mining, it would be aggregate, whatever the option, if they have guidelines provided to them by the national government, they know what is a fair price and secondarily, they know the type of reports that should be generated by the extractor of the mineral or the oil or the gas. There should be a standard that they receive. And if they wanted to, they could actually have one of the Comptroller’s Public Accounts at the federal level periodically audit, to be sure that they’re not being cheated.

I feel very strongly about it because I know firsthand of oil contracts where the indigenous people did not have experts on staff and were taken advantage of. I’m not denigrating their education or experience. Very few people have the experience necessary to manage the contracts and the concessions, and the monthly production reports.