According to a broad and deep consensus of environmental scientists, these are desperate times for Planet Earth. In fact, they say, we are running out time to change radically our sources of energy before rising temperatures, rising seas, and a surge in spectacular weather events, historic rainstorms, historic hurricanes, historic droughts and historic wildfires destroy much of our natural habitat.
That’s the bad big picture and the 2019 session of the New Mexico State Legislature tried to re-frame it by passing an historic Energy Transition Act that calls for the state to end its addiction to fossil fuels entirely by the year 2050. PNM, the state’s major utility, says it can beat that clock by becoming fossil-fuel free by 2040, by transitioning to sustainable, carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar power.
Critics say, even that ambitious timetable may not be fast enough to save New Mexico from temperatures already rising twice as fast as the global pace and drought that may be gone this year, but which is expected to return with a vengeance in years to come.
But if the big picture looks bad, there are a lot of smaller snapshots of the intersection between energy and survival in New Mexico that focus on the desperate need for jobs and revenues in an economically poor state.
Our guest today, Kendra Chamberlain, the new Environment Reporter at NM Political Report, has been covering just such a microcosm in the town of Farmington in the Northwest corner of New Mexico, a town dependent on the most damaging, least viable of the fossil fuels – coal. Transitioning away from coal mining and coal-firing at the huge nearby San Juan Generating Station will foreclose hundreds of jobs, and entail other costs to Farmington.
Could they be saved? A hedge-fund speculator says they can, and a desperate town is turning its eyes to him. Meanwhile, a think tank critic calls the financier’s proposal “a false hope,” and “flim-flam.”
Just two hours’ drive south from Farmington sits the San Mateo Creek Basin where decades ago a different mining industry went bust, leaving the local economy bereft. And once again, speculators are offering the hope of a revival in the mining of Uranium, a basic fuel for nuclear energy. Here the money people are being asked, not just to re-energize a local economy’s future, but to help pay the enormous environmental costs from past Uranium mining. Chamberlain has been reporting on this story, too.
And she’s also been digging into another climate-killing byproduct of the fossil fuel industry, methane; New Mexico’s most visible energy-related catastrophe. Cameras in space spotted the biggest plume of methane in the Western Hemisphere rising from the San Juan Basin just northeast of Farmington.
Here are four things Kendra Chamberlain’s reporting tells us about methane:
1) It is a powerful contributor to global warming.
2) EPA estimates methane releases are falsely reassuring. A recent study said real emissions dwarf the EPA figures by as much at 5 to 1.
3) One reason the EPA estimates may be baloney is that the oil and gas industry has prevented anything like accurate monitoring of how much methane it leaks and flares every day into our air.
And 4) The man who President Trump has just put in charge of the EPA for New Mexico and surrounding states is a longtime industry executive who not only denies that the San Juan Basin methane plume is largely caused by the industrial extraction of oil, gas and coal, he denies that climate change is related to, and can be modified by, human activity.
Kendra Chamberlain is the new Environment Reporter at NM Political Report, talking over from the foundation set by Laura Paskus over the last two years. She will lead our coverage of environmental issues around the state and write the weekly NM Environment Review email newsletter.
Chamberlain will continue covering much of what Paskus did over the past two years, but will also expand our coverage with other environment issues.
Chamberlain, who grew up in Santa Fe before going to college in New York and began her journalism career in Louisiana. She previously worked as a space reporter and analyst for The Enterprise Orbit, the news desk editor at Dig Baton Rouge and freelanced for outlets like Ensia Magazine and DeSmogBlog.