How New Mexico Could Become A Climate Leader

Executive Director
Los Alamos Study Group

Current New Mexico climate policy is largely based on the implementation of initiatives which, in the best case (unlikely), would have relatively trivial impacts on total New Mexico greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

New Mexico GHG emissions are largely driven by the emissions of the oil and gas production, which have been rapidly rising, and even more so by out-of-state combustion of New Mexico oil and gas products, which are not included in state accounting.

According to the administration’s climate strategy document and its sources, 2018 oil and gas operations in New Mexico accounted for 60.4 million metric tons (MMT) per year carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), or 53% — over half – of the state’s 114 MMT of GHG emissions tallied for that year. Fugitive emissions and fuel combustion in the oil and gas industry comprised 29% and 24%, respectively, of the state’s overall emissions.

The state’s inventory did not include the coal-fired Four Corners Generating Station, New Mexico’s largest single source of GHG (11 MMT/year), located on Navajo Nation land.

Even more importantly, the State did not include CO2 from the combustion of oil and gas produced in New Mexico but sold elsewhere.

At present production rates, burning oil and gas produced in the state creates about 386 MMT/yr of CO2e: 239 MMT/year from oil and 147 MMT/year from gas. Roughly 36 MMT of these emissions occurred in New Mexico (and was counted by the state’s inventory), leaving 350 MMT/year in out-of-state emissions from oil and gas produced in the state.

The State’s GHG inventory, and its policies, do not include over three-fourths of the GHGs produced in and marketed from the state.

Since 2018, when the state’s inventory was made, marketed natural gas production in New Mexico has increased by two-thirds. Oil production has doubled. In the absence so far of fully-implemented, effective regulation of fugitive emissions, we can assume GHG emissions from oil and gas operations, which state policies do aim to address, have also nearly doubled since 2018 (from 60 to about 110 MMT/year), raising state’s emissions by the same amount.

Actual growth in oil and gas emissions over the past three years (about 50 MMT/year) is as great as the hoped-for decline in GHG emissions by 2030 from current climate policies (about 45 MMT/year). New Mexico has dug a deep hole for itself over the past three years as far as GHG reductions are concerned.

Meanwhile emissions embodied in oil and gas products sold outside the state – the climate destruction from which is apparently outside the state’s interest, apart from the money the state is making from it – have also almost doubled over these three years, rising by a ballpark 190 MMT/year.

Under these circumstances, how can New Mexico become a climate leader? There are really only three ways.

First, notice that the emissions tallied by the State are geophysically negligible in comparison to global emissions. On the other hand, New Mexico oil production in particular is very significant on a national and even a global scale in terms of supply, which is constrained. U.S. oil production peaked in December 2019, probably permanently, and as of August 2021 production was still 14% lower.  

New Mexico oil production has increased eightfold over the past 10 years and is still rising fast. Of all the major oil-producing states, only New Mexico had rising production over the past two years. In the past year, when several states saw modest recoveries, New Mexico accounted for 59% of U.S. oil production growth, more than twice that of second-place Texas. As of August 2021, New Mexico was responsible for 12% of U.S. oil production, second only to Texas at 43%. At this point, the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas is the only U.S. oil field with significant growth potential.

World crude oil production peaked in November 2018, quite likely permanently. Most of the world’s oil fields are now in terminal decline. Even on a global basis, the Permian stands out.

If New Mexico oil production were to sneeze, U.S. oil production would catch the flu, and the shock would be global. Curtailing New Mexico oil production would make a huge difference.

We face a climate emergency, right now. There is no safe carbon budget. What happens in the next few years will determine the fate of the Earth. We also face a declining U.S. and global oil supply, with ramifying effects. For economic as well as climate reasons we must leave oil as fast as we can – justly, but quickly. To make that possible, the American public must understand that fossil-fuel business-as-usual is well and truly over – that the oil emperor has no clothes. What does New Mexico’s rapidly-growing oil production, and our state’s attachment to it, say? Exactly the opposite. It says we can keep on “happy motoring” forever. We have failed to understand that the problem is oil and gas per se, not fugitive emissions.

As regards natural gas, New Mexico’s rising production – currently about 6% of the U.S. total – helps provide not just U.S. customers but also liquefied natural gas (LNG) for export, an extremely inefficient industry, the downstream emissions from which are also not included in the State’s tally.  

Curtailing oil and gas production is the first of three ways New Mexico could lead on climate protection.

The second way would be to first learn about, and then to seriously oppose, plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Halting pit production at LANL would halt pit production for a decade — the decisive decade for the future of humankind and countless species.

New nuclear weapons in the quantities now planned require new pits. Détente is necessary for international progress on climate issues. A crash program to build pits, encouraging and allowing a nuclear arms race, is the opposite of what we need. Delaying pit production until the mid-2030s or later is one of the most consequential things New Mexicans could do on the climate issue.

The third way New Mexico could lead lies in establishing a genuine social contract that really begins to break the system of poverty and protects those in the growing “precariat,” while providing rich opportunities and support for our children. With the money gushing in from oil and gas and the present outrageous nuclear weapons expansion, the state’s leaders have the illusion that this state does not need more progressive taxation, better administration, or even a full-time, paid, staffed legislature.

Failing to prioritize the vulnerable in a time of steep economic decline — which is where we are today — is a moral catastrophe with existentially dangerous implications for government and society.

New Mexico, which in many ways has fallen back to more of an administrative territory than a state, needs a real revolution in governance, one that prioritizes people, not corporate profits or kilowatt-hours. Crafting climate and energy policies that serve and help create resilient, strong communities and families as the first goal of government, not as an afterthought, would truly “lead by example.”