It’s time for a moratorium on new fossil fuel extraction

Even in states like New Mexico that depend on oil revenue, the costs outweigh the benefits.

 

Oil well pumpjacks near Eddy, New Mexico.

Last week, the Trump administration declared that the U.S. — the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases — is officially withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. This will give yet more encouragement to fossil fuel companies across the West, meaning more money in public coffers and happier times for the politicians who allocate funding.

At my home here in New Mexico, many are giddy about the state’s oil boom. But people also are deeply conflicted about the effects of oil and gas on the climate crisis. We just passed legislation to close down our coal-fired power plants, and cities are moving aggressively to reduce their climate footprint. And many do not regard oil and gas development as a desirable neighbor. In Santa Fe County, home to many New Mexicans who are used to having some agency in their lives, the threat of oil and gas development in the Galisteo Basin inspired a moratorium and a tough land-use ordinance that would effectively ban it.

People who live near oil and gas facilities know the full costs of the wealth generated by fossil fuels. They may be affected by air pollution, including air toxins, elevated ozone levels, the danger of explosions, the likelihood of spills and the injection of unknown chemicals into groundwater. Residents are affected by the scraping of land for drill pads, pipelines and other infrastructure, the construction of roads, and the impacts of all this on area wildlife and endangered species. Reclamation of arid desert lands is rarely completed. Energy development also threatens important cultural and archaeology sites; members of the Navajo Nation and TEWA Women United, a group of Pueblo women, are currently fighting to stop fracking in the Greater Chaco region.

Even worse, the continued development of the world’s oil and gas bring us much closer to an unlivable future. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that the industry releases 13 million metric tons of methane each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 85% more destructive than carbon dioxide, and, astoundingly, it accounts for a quarter of the climate effects that we’re experiencing now. The Trump administration is rolling back methane rules, and emissions are rising. In addition, the burning of oil and gas adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, crippling attempts to limit rising temperatures.

The Southwest is sometimes called the epicenter of climate change in the U.S., although that dubious distinction might be shared with many other regions. But increasing aridification — a clunky word that is more accurate than drought because “normal” times will not return — will hit the region hard. And the consequences will be heartbreaking; in just one example, 100% of all conifers in the Southwest are expected to be gone by 2100.

It’s not easy to know whether we should celebrate our ample oil reserves or bemoan the consequences for our state and the world. Oil and gas development is a particularly thorny topic in New Mexico, an especially poor state that ranks last in public education and first as the worst place to raise a child. New Mexico’s tax structure has long been in need of reform, with heavy dependence on a gross receipts tax and very little use of property or income taxes. As a result, the state relies heavily on the oil and gas revenues that provide one-third of its general fund revenues. 

What will New Mexico, a state that just committed to a 100% renewable energy supply for its power plants, do about the energy boom that is exploding in the Permian Basin? It seems supremely unfair that oil, a word synonymous with wealth, is too dirty to mine and burn when this impoverished state needs all the revenue that it can get.

New Mexico and other states that depend on fossil fuels need to wake up from the somnolence that oil wealth is bringing. The boom-and-bust cycle will continue, at least partly because the world is finally transitioning to renewable energy, though the more familiar fluctuation of global markets is also a factor. Other states have diversified their economies and broadened their tax bases, and it is urgent that oil-rich states do the same. Finally, the state must listen to those who are negatively affected by development and show itself accountable for the high costs of oil and gas, as well as the revenues.

National leaders have begun to call for a moratorium on new development on federal lands. This is a much-needed first step, one that points to the federal government’s role in subsidizing oil and gas through accelerated leasing on our public lands, as well as the role energy exports play in degrading these lands. Federal policies have long promoted oil and gas development. It’s time they did a better job of helping states with the energy transition, too, much as we are slowly attempting to do in Appalachia and other regions hit by declining coal production.

Denise Fort is the former secretary of finance and administration for New Mexico and an emerita professor of law at the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is now a climate activist in New Mexico. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...