The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network
New Mexico was on track to become a model for phasing out coal power without abandoning those who have worked, lived, or breathed under its smokestacks. The state’s largest utility had already announced plans to divest from coal. A new state law would hold it to that pledge while also providing millions of dollars in funding for workers and affected communities. “This is a really big deal,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the bill signing. “The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico.”
The 2019 law has withstood political and legal challenges, but three years later it still faces a major test.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other high-profile, powerful lawmakers hope to pass a highly complex and consequential energy bill through this year’s 30-day legislative session. They hit a wall yesterday in the House Energy, Environment & Natural Resources committee where a bi-partisan majority of the committee’s members voted to table the Hydrogen Hub Act. The marathon six hours about the 68-page bill brimming with technical and often arcane language demonstrated a challenge in New Mexico’s legislative system of relying on unpaid citizen lawmakers.
While intense public pressure against the proposal surely contributed to the outcome, it was also clear lawmakers had little time to digest the legislation or its implications before the hearing.
Like most of the public, I’ve had little opportunity to research the bill that was introduced earlier this week, much less develop an informed perspective about it. But I don’t have to cast a vote in the next few weeks on whether or not to use public resources to spur a new industry, especially one that in legislative time has popped up out of the blue.
The principal bill sponsor, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat representing an area of the state that would benefit from the measure, made a point of telling the committee that the bill had been in the works for more than a year. It had been heard in two interim committees already, she said, and endorsed by the Legislative Finance Committee.
But most of New Mexico’s lawmakers hold down other jobs and don’t have paid analysts to help turn hard-to-understand legislation into discernible facts.
Listening to the lengthy committee hearing yesterday, it’s clear there are voluminous details lawmakers must master to make an informed decision about the economics of the proposal, the technical details involved in producing hydrogen, and the environmental impact.
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.