To my mind, the 2018 election year marked a turning of the American political tide. Admittedly, the “blue wave” was nothing like a tsunami. It was scaled more like a ripple, but it did show a marked change to a more progressive direction.
Perhaps my perspective is distorted by my home base, New Mexico, where the Democrats won all the statewide and federal elections, and flipped the lower house of the state legislature from red to blue. They already held a majority in the state senate where no seats were up last year.
This meant the 2019 Legislative session, with bicameral majorities for the Democrats, led by a new Democratic governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, was an interesting register of the real significance of these partisan changes.
In no political area was change more apparent than in the rules governing the energy sector. The oil and gas industries are by far the most important economic integers in New Mexico’s fiscal equation. The boom in fracking in the Permian Basin, which extends across western Texas into New Mexico’s southeast corner, produced more than a billion dollars in new state tax revenues and enabled all those Democrats to substantially boost the state budget to $7 billion, giving raises to most state employees and allowing the state more easily to meet a court order to boost spending on public education, especially for variously disadvantaged students, to significantly higher levels.
But after eight years under Republican governor Susana Martinez in which state government prostration before the extractive industries (add copper mining to oil and gas drilling) reached truly embarrassing levels, the Democrats faced a challenge not unlike brain surgery – how to bring oil and gas back under some kind of regulatory control without killing or definitively pissing-off the state’s economic driver.
How the Democrats did that, what they were able to achieve, and at what price, is a fascinating political story, marked by two historic, direction-changing achievements that pushed New Mexico out of its traditional position as a political-conceptual backwater to something close to national leadership.
The two pieces of hallmark legislation were the Energy Transition Act which brackets New Mexico with California in setting long-term, clean-energy goals. First, cutting reliance on fossil fuels to 20% of state needs by 2040 and zero by 2050. Second, the much more definite, much less purely aspirational, Produced Water Act, which goes further than any state, including the bellweather of the Golden West, to regulate the liquid wastes produced by oil and gas extraction, especially by the method known as fracking.
“For every barrel of oil produced,” our guest today, reporter Elizabeth Miller, wrote in New Mexico in Depth, “five to seven barrels of produced water also emerge from the ground. In 2018, that totaled more than one billion barrels. Most of [which] is then injected into the ground.”
The single word that describes every drop of produced water is “toxic.” So, a multi-billion-dollar question is – since re-injection presents lots of problems and lots of costs, what better way might there be to deal with the stuff?
The answers all depend on state regulation, and the new Produced Water law provides some measure of both answers and regulation.
Oh, did I forget, one question which the legislators and the new law hardly addressed at all is, what about climate change? On that ocean-liner sized issue, the Produced Water Law does little more than re-arrange the deck chairs.
Elizabeth Miller is a New Mexico-based freelance journalist who writes frequently for NM in Depth. She describes her work as “writing about environmental issues, outdoor sports, and whatever other rabbit holes on science, art, and public health I fall into.”