Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham sits down to discuss the state’s growing water crisis
The 2022 legislative session includes a series of environmental bills – ranging from a clean fuel standard to tax credits for energy storage, renewable energy and electric vehicles. Several bills would fund water projects and make changes to the Office of the State Engineer. Also under study is the Controversial Hydrogen Hubs Law, which, if passed, would provide tax subsidies to hydrogen producers in the state. The bill is strongly backed by the governor’s office, but environmental groups have warned it could increase natural gas emissions.
Searchlight New Mexico sat down with the governor to discuss a range of environmental concerns, including the future of hydrogen, the state’s fossil fuel industry and the water crisis.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
New Mexico Projector: What is the advantage of a hydrogen hub in New Mexico?
Michelle Lujan Grisham: It’s really good for the economy. We have Sen. [Martin] Heinrich’s bill [the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November] with 8 billion dollars of investments for hydrogen. The Department of Energy is very clear that this is an area in which it wants to go.
I don’t make decisions based solely on economic results. I have to balance that with environmental concerns. Diversifying the economy is not just something we excel at. We have the infrastructure for that — natural gas and coal-fired power plants, which can be converted [to hydrogen].
Projector: So what would a hydrogen hub look like here?
GML: In high-energy states like New Mexico, the people hardest hit by a truly robust transition to clean, renewable energy (which affects all of us) are communities of color. It’s a way to solve environmental problems, grow the economy and protect the most affected at-risk workers. Example: A thousand Navajo workers in San Juan County could experience a potential boom if we get it right.
Projector: What about the effect on the environment?
GML: Decarbonizing transportation is one of the most effective tools we have to meet our 2030 goals. And I plan to enshrine this in statewide legislation: Every sector must be carbon neutral by 2050. .
We think hydrogen is a really effective tool in that effort. Not in place of wind and solar and geothermal or healthy or conservation soils – but in addition. We are therefore targeting sectors such as transport. It’s a good pivot.
Projector: There is much debate about the different types of hydrogen, with growing evidence that blue hydrogen – which is produced with natural gas – is actually not low carbon.
MLG: The problem with hydrogen as a building block for decarbonizing transport is that we should never end up in a situation where we use all of one thing and nothing of the other. We should move forward as quickly as possible with new innovations and technologies.
The feds are incentivizing states to rush to the top and that puts me in competition with Louisiana. I will tell you that we can be greener and better — and [Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards] will tell you that they can be faster because they have more pipeline infrastructure.
What is that [competition] is to create innovation for the best possible environmental situation.
Projector: Many people in communities like Farmington and Carlsbad have expressed concern that all of these hydrogen investments are ultimately just a ploy to keep the fossil fuel industry going. You have supported industry growth in the past, for example, you signed a letter supporting the export of liquid natural gas (LNG) from New Mexico to the world.
GML: Well, there they are.
I mean, it would be great if in 1930 we thought about it a little differently. But we didn’t. We did not listen to environmental and scientific experts in 1960.
Now we have an obligation…to countries that still burn the dirtiest coal possible. Part of this is to present the US energy market. But it’s also to make sure that we create an opportunity to decarbonize carbon intensity in other countries where we don’t see that.
Projector: Do you think the state can maintain its current level of oil and gas activity while meeting its climate goals?
GML: Probably, frankly, we could. I think the better question might be, should we? The faster we make a transition, the faster we make the transition lines, the faster we don’t just use correctly. Renewables or cleaner energy systems in the state and the faster we can export it.
We should be the greenest state in the country. We are in an interesting juxtaposition, being the second largest oil and gas producer in the country. Part of the challenge here is that while we have a lot of oil and gas activity on public land, there’s also a lot of private land. And growers can just go to Texas and pull it all off with fewer regulations. You can flare there, you can use fresh water and we are impacted by that.
Projector: A new state law calls for a 98% methane reduction by 2026. Does New Mexico have the resources to enforce these new regulations, given that your predecessor, Susanna Martinez, dramatically reduced state environmental agency regulations and personnel?
GML: Did she have [environmental regulations]? I certainly had no staff in any of the departments when I arrived.
If it’s labor, we don’t have it. I have 83,000 open jobs in the state. We have a labor revolution underway. That’s why we have to use technology.
We have the strictest rules on methane, which the federal authorities are now enacting. If you don’t have that, you can’t get clean hydrogen. And I keep bragging about it even though it’s not there yet. We are not there yet for the deployment, but the components are quite ready. We expect the industry to clean all that up.
Projector: Ok, I want to jump in the water.
GML: [Laughing] Do you know where a lot of water is? Because if you could take me there, that would be great.
Projector: You have already said that we are in a water crisis. What does that look like from your point of view?
GML: We are not in an extreme drought. We are in the process of acidification. It’s only what we see that looks like extreme dryness. I grew up in Santa Fe and there was no wind [here]. It wasn’t so dry, it wasn’t so hot, there was never so much wind.
We’re running out of water because we’re drawing at a rate no one predicted – and it’s all linked to the climate crisis. And because we’re a small state, we kind of leaned on this weird notion that we have a lot of water. Because water is the only resource you need to have – and it’s the only resource we lack all over the world.
Projector: A few months ago, State Engineer John D’Antonio resigned, citing a lack of resources for his department. He said that your office had requested that the agency submit a fixed budget for several consecutive years.
GML: I don’t know why he would say that. I didn’t ask anyone to submit a lump sum budget—and if you look at all the other departments, none of them asked for a lump sum budget. There is no such memo.
We need to rewrite what the engineer’s office looks like. John D’Antonio may be one of the few New Mexicans who would qualify to be a state engineer because you have to be an engineer. [A bill under consideration in the legislature this month would expand the qualifications for the state engineer, allowing scientists in certain water-related disciplines and lawyers to be appointed to the position.]
We were lucky to have him, but as a state engineer, you don’t play politics. You bring your expertise to lawyers who then intervene in litigation. I need a politician. I want a 50 year old body of water. I want to know where the water is. And we have to have conservation. It’s a state that doesn’t do enough conservation.
NOTE: On February 2, Governor Lujan Grisham appointed Mike Hamman, his former water adviser, as the new state engineer.