Striving toward net zero, New Mexico grapples with role of hydrogen

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When Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced during the New Mexico Climate Summit in late October she would champion a law to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, she received accolades from the environmental community. 

“Net zero” refers to a movement to reduce and offset through environmentally friendly policies and practices the greenhouse gases that would otherwise reach the earth’s atmosphere. Lujan Grisham’s stated objective builds on an already ambitious goal set in 2019 by the Legislature and her administration to transition New Mexico by 2045 from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy to power its electricity grid. 

Getting to net zero by 2050 has become a global rallying cry to halt warming to 1.5° degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in order to arrest catastrophic impacts of a changing climate. Impacts are increasingly evident now: high-severity drought and wildfires, increasing  hurricanes, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. 

On paper, the path toward Net Zero sounds simple: drastically curtail current greenhouse gas emitting activities while increasing clean energy and activities that capture greenhouse gases before they enter the atmosphere. 

But it’s not simple. Achieving Net Zero encompasses altering all sectors of the economy.

And the battle over which path to take toward it can prove vexing.

Lujan Grisham has found herself at odds with a who’s who of environmental and community groups over her signature piece of legislation in 2022, a proposed Hydrogen Hub Act, which would provide state incentives like tax credits to support creation of a hydrogen fuel industry. 

The governor’s view is that building a hydrogen fuel industry can be a win/win if done right. “For an energy state, it’s more jobs,” she said on a September podcast about hydrogen, and it “gives us a clean energy platform.” 

Hydrogen, when burned, doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. Although it can be made from water, most often it’s produced from natural gas.  

The principal component of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas composed of hydrogen and carbon. For hydrogen derived from natural gas to truly be clean, no greenhouse gases must escape into the atmosphere as the carbon is separated and captured, which afterward would be stored in the ground. That’s a tall order. 

While acknowledging the potential that hydrogen can be produced from brackish water or wastewater, the governor’s vision counts on tapping the vast natural gas reserves in New Mexico while maintaining jobs that depend on fossil fuel extraction. 

“…you’re using what typically could be a problem–methane, natural gas,” she said on the September podcast, to create a cleaner energy source that helps the state energy transition. 

New Mexico is poised, she said, to turn methane in natural gas into “a fuel cell on the spot.” 

This is where the governor and many environmental groups part ways.

Groups opposing the Hydrogen Hub Act characterize her plan as an attempt to prop up the fossil fuel industry and say the state should develop its economy in other directions, leaning into a future based on energy from renewable sources. 

The technology to capture carbon dioxide and inject it into the ground isn’t proven, they add. Nor is the ability to capture all methane emissions or make the production process clean, a point supported by recent research from scientists at Cornell and Stanford. 

And, the proposal is a rush job, they say, that would award tax incentives for more fossil fuel production without careful analysis or hearing from communities most impacted by the proposal–those living within a stone’s throw from natural gas fields. 

They have a point. During 2021’s 60-day legislative session, there was little, if any, discussion about hydrogen despite a plethora of bills addressing climate change. 

Getting to Net Zero

A net zero bill was introduced last year by then-state Rep. Melanie Stansbury, and several of her colleagues, called the “Climate Solutions Act.” Now serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Stansbury continues to express urgency for New Mexico playing its part in arresting global warming. 

“We need every local community across our state… to do its part to get to net zero or carbon reduction, because the only way that we avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change is collective action across every sector of our society and every form of government and economic sector,” she said in an interview.

Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, has filed a bill this session, which begins January 18, to mandate New Mexico achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 

Other lawmakers have filed several pieces of climate change legislation that, taken together, get across how ambitious and economically diverse the Net Zero movement is. 

A bill introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, would create a clean fuel standard for New Mexico that would gradually decrease over several decades the amount of greenhouse gas emitted from transportation fuel. It speaks to the global effort to move from combustion engines to electric batteries in vehicles. 

Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, meanwhile, is re-introducing a bill to create a New Mexico Reforestation Center to address the impacts of climate change. The center would establish a seed bank, a nursery, and a planting program.

That speaks to efforts in the state to create greater “carbon sinks,” which absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit. One example: trees.

“There’s been a number of studies that show the huge potential for New Mexico to become a net carbon sink, particularly in forestry and reforestation,” Stansbury said. The way we do that, she said, is to scale up a massive reforestation program across the state as well as forest treatments, like thinning of trees, to prevent forest fires.

In her budget recommendation, Lujan Grisham proposed $2.5 million for a new Climate Change Bureau that would implement climate related laws and develop additional policies “to get New Mexico to netzero emissions by 2050.”

There will likely be additional bills aimed at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Like the Hydrogen Hub Act. 

Stansbury’s New Mexico Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Congress gave full-throttled support to building a hydrogen economy in New Mexico in a letter to the Biden administration last May, before she was elected. New Mexico is ideally suited for an emerging hydrogen economy, senators Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich, and congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez wrote, because of both robust renewable and natural gas resources. 

In their letter, the trio focused on regions of the state with large oil and gas reserves for locating hydrogen development, in particular San Juan County in the northwest, which they said was one of the most coal-dependent communities in the nation. The region is facing extensive job loss as power companies seek to move away from coal as an energy source. 

“Private industry is already at work developing several forms of hydrogen production in Northwest New Mexico, and the addition of a robust federal investment will drive this important momentum forward,” they wrote. “Clean hydrogen investment in Northwest New Mexico is also critical to workforce development and securing good-paying American clean energy jobs in this economically challenged area.” 

Hydrogen development would be a good fit for the region, said Arvin Trujillo, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, a public-private partnership focused on economic diversification in San Juan County. 

Trujillo held engineering and management positions at the Navajo, San Juan and LaPlata mines, and was later the manager of government relations for the Four Corners power plant. He also served for 11 years as executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, during the Begaye and Shirley administrations. 

“We see a lot of possibilities given the fact that we have a lot of natural gas in the region,” he said. There’s a lot of expertise in the area, including oil and gas workers, power plant experience, and an electrical grid in place. 

Trujillo said hydrogen would help the area move away from fossil fuels, particularly coal, taking issue with those who argue that the energy transition should focus only on renewables like solar and wind without proposing ideas that maintain jobs for an entire middle class built up over decades. 

For the Navajo Nation, he said, “…basically this industry built a whole middle class. How do you begin to transition that to a new way so that as this industry is being displaced, or slowly shut down, they have something else to go to?”

In an interview, Stansbury seemed to take a middle road when asked about hydrogen fuel, stressing the importance of following science.

“I believe strongly that if you can find a way to use these technologies to sequester carbon permanently and reduce our greenhouse gas footprint, that is a net benefit to the state and it’s a net benefit to global greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “But if the proposal does not ultimately lead to a net reduction or carbon capture, then you know it’s not ultimately aimed at addressing our carbon footprint.”

Stansbury cautioned against a singular focus on one strategy. “…if we’re going to solve the climate crisis, it requires action across every sector of our society,” she said.

A spokesperson for Lujan Grisham echoed that sentiment. “Low carbon hydrogen is not “instead of” – rather, it is “in addition to” all our other climate strategies,” wrote Maddy Hayden in an email. 

The focus on hydrogen for Lujan Grisham might not be singular, but it likely will attract the most heat. 

A comprehensive list of environmental and social justice organizations issued a public letter on October 5 to Lujan Grisham, the state’s congressional delegation, land commissioner, and legislative leaders, urging caution and conversation about whether investing in a hydrogen hub makes sense for the state. 

In that letter they listed seven principles they hoped the administration would consider regarding whether hydrogen should be part of the state’s transition to clean energy. Top of the list was that the state should first put together a climate policy framework, before trying to create a new hydrogen industry with state resources. Second was that equity and justice shape and underpin any decisions. 

Mario Atencio, who signed the letter as a board member of Diné Care, a Navajo-led environmental group, wrote in a commentary for New Mexico In Depth that the proposal would lead to more fracking and release carbon dioxide in the process. 

“By promoting more fracking, this method of hydrogen production stands to perpetuate environmental injustice that our communities are already experiencing in the Greater Chaco region, cause further air and water pollution, and further damage sacred landscapes and public lands in New Mexico,” Atencio wrote. 

Fast forward to December 10, after they received a draft of the proposed Hydrogen Hub Act. A similar grouping of environmental organizations submitted detailed remarks to state officials challenging the notion that hydrogen made from natural gas is necessary to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. 

And they took umbrage at a lack of consultation with community groups, particularly those living closest to natural gas fields in the state. 

“The discussion draft is conceptually and fatally flawed,” their remarks state. The groups said they were “disconcerted by the rushed process” and that meaningful conversations had not taken place, “in particular with frontline communities where a hydrogen hub is most likely to be located.” 

 “Boiled to its essence,” the groups wrote, the proposal is based on unsubstantiated assumptions. “It is unclear to us why a hydrogen hub, beyond chasing federal infrastructure money, is needed, why New Mexico taxpayers should prop up a hydrogen hub with subsidies, what the scale and true impacts of a hydrogen hub would or would not be, the resources state agencies would need to oversee this industry, whether those resources would entail opportunity costs, or the burden this would impose on local governments and communities.”

Hayden, the spokesperson for Lujan Grisham, said hydrogen is important for decarbonizing certain industries. “Long haul trucks, for example, cannot go electric without dedicating an enormous percentage of space and weight to batteries,” she wrote in an email. “In reality, electric long-haul vehicles are just not economically viable. Low carbon hydrogen provides the trucking, manufacturing, construction, and other industries a fuel source that is good for the environment when produced responsibly.”

But Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environment Law Center, said in an email the discussion draft circulated in late 2021 didn’t target hydrogen to a few hard-to-reach industries. And he said proposed policies at the federal and state levels don’t ultimately ensure that growing a hydrogen economy would decarbonize targeted sectors. 

“So when the governor says hydrogen could be made low-carbon with regulation, my response is “maybe,” but that’s not what she proposed in her discussion draft,” he said. “The governor’s discussion draft bill simply offered taxpayer subsidies to prop up fossil gas hydrogen.

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