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Groups criticize governor's climate vetoes

Lucas Herndon
Lucas Herndon is Energy Policy Director for ProgressNow New Mexico

KC Counts talks with Lucas Herndon about the measures vetoed his group and others think would make meaningful climate progress. Here is a transcript of their conversation:

KC Counts:

Tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to this role and what you do for ProgressNow New Mexico.

Lucas Herndon:

I've been with ProgressNow New Mexico almost eight years. It'll be eight years in June when I started, I represented our organization for Southern New Mexico So I was sort of an online digital community organizer and the work we, you know, progress now works on a number of progressive political issues in the state. And so I attended a lot of community meetings here in the southern part of the state, represented our organization at those meetings and then also tried to elevate the issues facing Southern New Mexicans into the broader statewide political area. In 2017, I started working a little bit more on environmental issues, partially because of my background working in advocacy around public land. Then in 2012 I started working on the campaign to create the Organ Mountain National Monument. And we were successful with that in 2014. I've also worked in the solar industry and so I have a background in a few different parts of the environmental movement, from public lands to energy issues. And then, yeah, and so then after starting that work with progress now in 2017, in 2020, As ProgressNow went through some management changes and just sort of a shift in moving our overall policy forward, as New Mexico's own political landscape was shifting, I was bumped up into this position of energy policy director, so currently a big part of my work is keeping account of what is happening in New Mexico when it comes to energy issues. Obviously in our state, we are the second largest oil and gas state in terms of production. Oil and gas plays a very outsized role in New Mexico politics, both in our actual representation in terms of people who are elected into our legislature, but also just the money that comes in from the oil and gas industry, both directly in terms of the revenue collected by the states, and what funds various programs in the state. But also, politically, in terms of political donations and favors from the industry to and for, our political candidates.

KC Counts:

Now when we talk about the money that comes in it do you, does it just boil down to that in terms of what kind of policy we see, whether it's a Republican or Democratic governor or legislature, which is rare (Republican Legislature), Is that what it boils down to is just industry influence and the lack of diversification in our state's economy?

Lucas Herndon:

Yeah, I think that's a great way to to say it. I mean you can this is you know something that folks on the more conservative side of the aisle, something they love to point out is that New Mexico has been, you know, a quote UN quote blue state or a democratic state for most of its history, politically speaking, which is true, but through that you have seen this outsized influence from the oil and gas industry. A great example is that this year there was an effort to revise and update New Mexico's oil and Gas Act, which is the sort of governing law in the state and in terms of how the state and the industry interact with each other, that law has not been updated since World World War II. It is older than anybody currently serving in New Mexico politics; and that was actually defeated in its first committee. It didn't even make it out of its first committee. So yeah, that's it. You know, the influence of the oil and gas industry, despite political party is felt statewide every year through every election, every legislative session, absolutely.

KC Counts:

Let's talk about this past legislative session. Your organization, along with several others, banded together to express disappointment about the governor's veto for bills related to climate action. Why don’t you tell us first what it was specifically that the governor vetoed?

Lucas Herndon:

So the the vetoes specifically were around 5 different pieces of a tax package that was passed by the House and the Senate, you know, by the legislature. Those tax credits affected things like people buying electric vehicles and being able to, you know, get a tax rebate from the state as well as - there was a tax piece for geothermal - heat pumps for people that want to continue to electrify their homes, to move away from oil and gas being used in their homes and there was... so there was a couple of different pieces of that in the tax package and additionally that same day that she proactively vetoed those five energy and climate related tax bills, she also pocket vetoed, meaning she did not sign into law a bill that was passed with bipartisan support supporting geothermal research at New Mexico institutions like the the universities to create a center of excellence, as I believe it was called, around geothermal research and just a quick sort of background on that, geothermal is a renewable energy source that utilizes the th heat from inside the earth by pumping fluid down into the earth and letting it get heated up, and then when it returns to the to the surface using that heat in exchange to turn, to spin a turbine, like you would using any other energy source, whether it's wind, solar, gas, or coal. And the neat thing about geothermal is the research and the technology is actually supported a lot by the oil and gas industry because it still requires, you know, drilling and that technology, but it creates a renewable source of energy.

KC Counts:

Lucas, I I think if I'm not mistaken, geothermal really gets no love. You know, when it comes to policymaking, whether on local or state levels in general or even on the federal level. Why is that?

Lucas Herndon:

Well, it's gaining in popularity. We did see some movement on it this year and unfortunately, like I said, the governor did veto the idea of the Center for Excellence. And we also saw the veto of the tax incentive that would have allowed individuals to utilize that technology on a smaller scale. It's hard to say why it's less popular than some other forms of renewable energy. I think that part of it is that it is a little bit regional specific. You know, you can theoretically install solar panels or wind turbines pretty much anywhere in the United States or actually anywhere around the world. Geothermal requires a certain access to, you know, certain levels of the Earth under you within reachable distance and New Mexico is blessed to have a number of areas - there is a geothermal exploration area down here in southern New Mexico, kind of out in the boot heel where there is work being done and so far, it's shown promise. And so, you know, we are hopeful that we'll see more work being done on that in the future and that we see that technology continue to gain in popularity both from private industry but also with support from the state.

KC Counts:

Now the governor has expressed support for hydrogen and I made a note here of a $1.2 billion package for a hydrogen hub proposal; and there are very mixed feelings on that moving forward.

Lucas Herndon:

So the issue with hydrogen is that it sounds good because when you have the finished product, when you have a hydrogen fuel cell or you have liquefied hydrogen and use it and burn it, in theory you are burning something that has little impact on the climate when it's combusted. The problem is that first of all, that's not fully understood directly, because on the small scale for instance, burning hydrogen at like the industrial level, if you were to use it as a power source in an energy plant, we actually are still creating some byproducts like CO2, which is a greenhouse gas. But the bigger issue and the biggest problem for New Mexico is that currently all plans to create the hydrogen to capture those molecules is just a continuation of the oil and gas industry. Because what they want to do is, they want to shift from extracting natural gas, which is a byproduct of oil mining, especially in the Permian Basin, but then also up in the in the northwest, in the San Juan Basin where the oil wells are played out, but they can still extract natural gas directly. They want to take that gas and then process it to extract the hydrogen out. They're going to take the methane and extract the hydrogen. Now there's two problems with this one. You still have all of the very dirty and unsafe infrastructure of the oil mining industry that is in place right now, that is currently leaking tons and tons of carbon into the atmosphere. So you have all of that, and then you add in that you have to use a very energy intensive process to capture the hydrogen. So where are you going to get that energy? Currently you would get it from burning natural gas directly, which again, we're not solving anything. If we do that, and then you have to do something with all the byproduct of that methane. Right now, the plan is to use carbon sequestration and I'm sitting here using air quotes because this technology is fairly new, definitely untested in a big way, and really what it comes down to is continuing to then put the CO2 back down into the earth using the same mining infrastructure you have to extract the methane in the first place which is, you know, again, just you're sort of continuing the same dirty non-renewable extractive industry you've had for years and years.

KC Counts:

So the governor explained her line-item veto saying that she was very concerned about the sustainability of the package as a whole and she had concerns that it was just too big so tell me what she could have done to pick and choose out of that bill.

Lucas Herndon:

One of the things that's sort of specific to the climate related bills, the five different energy bills, or energy related tax credits, is that all of those pieces would have allowed different sectors of New Mexico to further diversify away from the oil and gas industry which would then, you know, lessen our reliance on that industry, which in turn makes the state more sustainable and and moves us away from that reliance on between a third and as much as 40% of our overall budget every year. So that just on its face, we feel like her explanation wasn't really a fair one. And then the other thing about that is, is that all told, dollar for dollar, you know, those 5 tax credits with their limited, you know, scope and time are less than the one-time tax rebates that the New Mexicans are getting from, you know, from the excess oil and gas revenue we've collected over the last year and and just to be clear, you know, ProgressNow supports those tax credits that the people of New Mexico, who you know, continue to hurt after COVID really did a number on our communities as well as just the ongoing issue around the economy in the state. So you know it's not that - we're not demonizing the fact that the state, the legislature and the governor are supporting those tax rebates. That's fine, but it is worth noting, right, that in terms of sustainability, those one-time payments are happening and those are very unsustainable. It's a one-time payment . Also, those 5 tax credits that we're talking about are less than the film incentives that have, you know that continue to bring film interests from out of state into New Mexico and again, you know those, they're, broadly speaking, probably good things. They do create jobs in New Mexico. They are diversifying our revenue streams, so not demonizing that those things exist. But again, under her own explanation, that those were less impactful than those other pieces of the tax package that she allowed. to go through.

KC Counts:

Should people be surprised that a democratic legislature hammers out a bill, passes it, and then it gets vetoed by the governor, who's also a Democrat?

Lucas Herndon:

Well, I think that given the responses that we've seen from the public in the last, let's say, month or so since signing day, I believe was April the 7th. So yeah, we're coming up pretty quickly on a month since this happened. You know, this is a story and I work in the communications industry. This is my job. It is surprising in a way to see this story sort of have legs. A month later there, you know there hasn’t been a week or almost a day that's gone by that we haven't seen some version of this story somewhere in state newspapers or TV news or radio news like we are here today. The story has real merit and it's not just the environmental things. There were some other bills. There were some bills related to crime and sentencing that we've seen our friends at the ACLU decry, that the legislature passed and then the governor vetoed, despite the fact that it had. So, you know, I do think that people are questioning what the real motives here are. People are discouraged. Last week we saw an entire page of the Albuquerque Journal dedicated to letters to the editor from folks around the state who were expressing dismay at the governor's decision to veto those bills and for the legislature as a whole to have not really addressed climate in the big way that we were promised at the beginning of the session just from the from the jump.

KC Counts:

We can look back at maybe the governor's first term, were you more optimistic? After actions she took in the first term that we might see more bold action than this time around. And what does this mean for the future?

Lucas Herndon:

Oh, absolutely, yeah. And and you know, and I do want to be clear. We have held the governor accountable over the last month for these actions because for those of us that work on these issues year round, this was ostensibly the failure of years of hard work. But that's not to say that this governor hasn't taken bold action, and that the legislature hasn't taken bold action. We do not forget that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, her first executive order when she got sworn in, was related to climate and she dedicated that her administration, through her cabinet secretaries would make big impacts on specifically methane emissions in the state, and that happened, both through the New Mexico energy, the Environment Department and the Energy Minerals Natural Resources Department have both passed nation-leading methane rules at the administrative level, and that's great. And we've seen those rules put into place. We have seen both of those departments take action against bad actors in the oil and gas industry in the last year levying fines resulting in millions of dollars because of violations to those new methane rules, which is great and we absolutely want to give the governor credit for that work that she promised and then delivered on. The issue is that we needed to keep going and those rules that she put into place are administrative and meaning in theory, down the road, depending on what happens in the state of New Mexico politically, they could be undone if a different administration came into power.

KC Counts:

We've certainly seen that on different levels. We think about the federal level where you go from one administration to the next, you can just have an about face on energy and environmental policy, and other policy arenas as well. It's kind of like a two step forward, one step back process. I'd like to ask you quickly before I let you go about some of the things that maybe people should look into - should educate themselves about in terms of why it would be important to move away from fossil fuels.

Lucas Herndon:

Yeah, absolutely. You know, at the at the root of it, fossil fuels, are a limited resource. And at the end of the day, maybe not by the time you or I have to worry about it, but our children certainly will, those are finite resources and will become achallenge to continue to live our lives the way we are used to. Whether that's, you know, being able to freely move about our city, state, country, around in our vehicles or powering our homes through large off-site energy producing plants as they currently are, that's how the majority of the country gets their power. But on the bigger global, altruistic level, burning fossil fuels is harming our planet. This is the scientific consensus for decades now. The impact of fossil fuel combustion negatively affects our climate and it negatively affects our communities. It is not a coincidence that counties in the Permian Basin in New Mexico have the highest rate of childhood asthma of any county in the country. They are tied together. They are intrinsically dirty fuels. They create pollution whether it's in the form of emissions in a gaseous form or in solid form when they are spilled on the ground. They create a lot of waste in the form of water that in New Mexico we can't afford to waste a single drop and it takes almost 5. 1 gallons of water to produce a gallon of oil and that's just a resource we cannot spare in the future here in New Mexico. So there's a number of reasons and one of the frustrating things is that this is a political issue when it shouldn't be. This is an issue that faces everybody here in the state, no matter where you live, no matter how you make your living, whether or not you have children, it doesn't matter. We all live on this planet. We all have to breathe the air and drink the water and continuing to rely on fossil fuels is just something that we cannot sustain.

KC Counts:

Quickly, El Paso voters are heading to the polls on May 6th to decide on a few ballot initiatives, one of them is Prop K, the city's climate Charter initiative from the Sunrise group. What are your thoughts on that policy?

Lucas Herndon:

Well, you know, to be honest, I know that we are neighbors with El Paso here in Las Cruces. But I tend to focus all of my energy on New Mexico things. So I'm not as familiar with that issue as maybe I should be, but what I will say is that one of the reasons why all of these things work together is because again, we do all share this space. And so if the wind is blowing up from the South, then folks in Las Cruces are breathing air that may or may not be polluted by the emissions of El Paso drivers and that's not a slight at El Paso drivers, that's just the way the world works, so that's why we need to continue to see work done at the local level. So if El Paso is able to pass a climate Initiative and we know that folks in Las Cruces and Dona County have worked on those things for years that that those go hand in hand with continued state efforts here in New Mexico. Maybe someday in Texas, but also at the federal level because a lot of this especially in New Mexico, we're dealing with federal land. Where these oil and gas wells are and and whereas in Texas because they don't have the same kind of federal land permitting that we do in New Mexico, we're dealing with state laws and so we need, we need that overarching federal law to pass to protect all communities because the borders on the map don't protect us from the from the emissions, no matter where those come from.

KC Counts:

Lucas Herndon, thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this important issue with us. We appreciate your time.

Lucas Herndon:

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

KC Counts has been broadcasting to Southern New Mexico and West Texas audiences for over 30 years. KC is up early with listeners for "Morning Edition" weekdays, "Performance Today" from 9-11, "Here and Now" from 12-2, and on Saturdays. You might also see her on KRWG-TV.
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