What price New Mexico’s sky?


When I moved back to New Mexico this summer, I did my best to contain my enthusiasm for a long-awaited homecoming. In short, I tried to avoid tangling memory with reality. New Mexico is often easier to love in the abstract. Despite its often idealized history — full of noble American Indians, a stern Georgia O’Keeffe and quaint Spanish villages — New Mexico is a poor state that’s been left to leaders with limited vision.

So, on my drive from Colorado back into the state, I tried to take its dirty air in stride. But the haze was a shock: It began just south of Durango and lasted through Bloomfield and along the edge of the Navajo Reservation, ending somewhere around the Continental Divide, just west of the town of Cuba. I tried to avoid thinking this was the way it now was.

All told, the Four Corners area has about 20,000 producing oil and gas wells, with another 10,000 to 15,000 wells planned. That boom has been bad for air quality and for landowners fighting to lessen the damage from wells, but it has certainly helped to boost state coffers. Right now, the state has about a billion-dollar surplus. If only the state’s leaders could use that money wisely.

So far, it doesn’t look promising.

In December, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Companies, announced that Branson hopes to build the world’s first "spaceport" here in the state. Customers would pay about $200,000 to take a two and a half-hour trip into space; the company has already taken $11 million in reservations. As part of its proposal, Virgin Galactic’s headquarters and mission control would be located at the airport in Albuquerque, while the spaceport would be built in the state’s southern desert. Richardson is asking legislators to set aside $135 million of state money for Branson’s project.

Then, in mid-January, a for-profit business called the Rocket Racing League announced its intention to hold mile-high races in the desert near Las Cruces. The planes would race one another around a two-mile long course, dodging virtual objects projected onto the pilot’s screen. Fans below could watch the event on big screens.

The venture could yield the state $15 million to $30 million in what the governor calls "economic activity" by 2010. The deal hinges on the spaceport, and the city of Las Cruces is still negotiating with the company, but it has already promised to donate land and hangars.

According to Gov. Richardson: "As the future home of the Rocket Racing League, we look forward to welcoming the hundreds of thousands of people who will come to New Mexico to enjoy NASCAR in the sky." I guess he’s already courting those NASCAR dads for 2008.

This brings us back to that billion-dollar energy surplus. Lest anyone forget, New Mexico has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country. In fact, 30 percent of New Mexico’s children live below the poverty line. More than a quarter of New Mexicans do not have health care, and that number is growing. Other chronic problems in the state include failing schools, high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction and low rates of literacy. In other words, there is no shortage of social programs in the state that could benefit from even a small chunk of change.

There’s also the problem of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, an area the governor has said he’s concerned about. It turns out that aircraft are a major culprit. According to the U.S. Transportation Department’s Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting, about 70 percent of an aircraft’s emissions are made up of carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is the number-one contributor to climate change. The Federal Aviation Administration points out that in addition to a plane’s emissions, travelers use gasoline to go back and forth from airports, and the airports and landed planes require electricity, as do the ubiquitous construction crews found at any airport.

Currently, aviation accounts for 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, and about 3 percent of the total greenhouse emissions in the United States. That might not seem like a lot, but consider that the use of aircraft is growing, and the FAA estimates that emissions will increase 60 percent by 2025.

It’s time for New Mexico’s leaders to ask themselves some hard questions about what constitutes economic development. Besides, now that I’m about to increase my own carbon emissions — by adding a daughter to the planet — I’m hoping that I don’t have to tell her "when I was a young woman" stories about the once-glorious skies of New Mexico.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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