New Mexico Looks To Curb Methane Emissions and Channel Community Solar

In recent years, New Mexico has stood out as a state with high ambitions for climate policy. Upon taking office in January 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s third executive order brought the state into the U.S. Climate Alliance, created the New Mexico Climate Task Force, and directed the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to develop a statewide framework for reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production. 

Following the mandates of Governor Lujan Grisham’s executive order, the EMNRD and NMED have been working on new rules to reduce methane pollution in New Mexico. According to the EPA, methane has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide, but its warming impact is about 84 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period. 

Although methane is often associated with agriculture, oil and gas production is the primary driver of methane emissions in New Mexico. Methane leakage from fossil fuel facilities is a source of methane that often goes unnoticed, but it is a significant issue in New Mexico and other states with extensive fossil fuel industries. The Obama administration implemented stricter limitations on methane leakage, which the Trump administration rolled back. Complicating the problem is the fact that climate advocates and regulators don’t know the full extent of methane emissions in the state. Oil and gas companies report their methane emissions, but advocates are skeptical that these self-reported numbers reflect the full scope of emissions. However, a report from the Environmental Defense Fund found that emissions are higher than the national average in New Mexico, including the 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane found over the Four Corners region in 2014 which represented the highest concentration of methane anywhere in the nation. 

The EMNRD and NMED rolled out their methane rule proposals in late June, which would require oil and gas producers to control their methane releases to reduce emissions. Although the rules were hailed by many as an important step to reducing methane emissions, they have also received criticism from environmental advocates for their exemption of many smaller oil and gas wells. Many responses during the rules’ public comment period called for stronger rules with fewer exemptions.

The Energy Transition Act, signed into law in March 2019, created a statutory basis for the state’s climate goals, setting a target of 50 percent statewide renewable energy use by 2030 and providing assistance to communities affected by the energy transition. A key component that many in the state have identified as a promising source of renewable energy expansion is community solar, which saw enthusiasm throughout 2020 despite the pandemic. Community solar is a model of generating solar power that makes it easier for people who cannot install solar panels onto their houses to access solar energy by allowing groups of people to pay for parts of an off-site solar project and share the electricity generated at the plant. This makes it a popular tool to help renters and apartment dwellers have solar power as an option, and a way to reduce statewide emissions under the Energy Transition Act.

Community solar has been a priority for many in New Mexico. The 2020 legislative session saw multiple pieces of community solar legislation introduced, including Senate Memorial 63, Convene Community Solar Working Group. This bill established a working group made up of stakeholders ranging from the EMNRD, the public regulation commission, utility companies, electric cooperatives, environmental organizations, representatives of the renewable energy industry, local governments, and other interested groups to review current community solar initiatives and develop recommendations for a “sustainable and scalable market-based program for the state of New Mexico.”

According to Paul Biderman, Legislative Action Team Co-Facilitator of 350 Santa Fe and a facilitator of the working group, as many as 90 people have been involved in the process, and the group continues to investigate and discuss even as the pandemic has changed the forms that meetings take. Biderman is hopeful about the future prospects of community solar in New Mexico.

“People are becoming more sensitized to the realities of climate change,” he told Climate XChange, “People are looking for creative solutions.”

Looking Ahead to 2021

Although New Mexico has established ambitious climate goals and has seen continued enthusiasm to meet them, tax revenues from the oil and gas industry comprise a significant portion of the state’s budget. The industry is a major part of the state’s tax base, and taxes paid by oil and gas companies contributed to an initial budget surplus going into the FY2021 budget planning process. Estimates from January 2020 surmise that oil and gas revenues comprise as much as 39% of the state’s General Fund revenues. The impact of New Mexico’s dependence on fossil fuel revenues became apparent when oil prices plummeted into the negative in April 2020. In response to the resulting proposed budget shortfall, lawmakers reduced the FY2021 budget from $7.6 billion to $7.22 billion in a special legislative session over the summer.

Amid a budget crisis and questions about the long-term economic viability of the oil and gas industry, both globally and in New Mexico, policymakers, state offices, and climate advocates are looking forward to the 2021 legislative session as an opportunity to continue moving toward the state’s climate goals. Although the special legislative session was focused almost exclusively on COVID-19 response and relief, the normal session, which will run from January 19th to March 20th, 2021, will likely reflect New Mexicans’ continued commitment to strong environmental policy in line with the objectives of the Energy Transition Act and Governor Lujan Grisham’s executive order. Both chambers of the state legislature and the Governor’s office are all currently controlled by Democrats, and these majorities are likely to persist after the November elections. In fact, the state Senate might become more progressive on issues such as climate after some moderate Democrats lost to primary challengers earlier this year.

Biderman told Climate XChange that environmental groups and lawmakers are already preparing for the 2021 legislative session. New Mexico continues to have an active and engaged climate community dedicated to fulfilling the goals and promises of the Energy Transition Act, who are looking to push for legislation ranging from community solar to gas taxes to regenerative farming as ways to improve both climate and economic outcomes. “There’s an active and persistent community, and people care.”

Featured Image: Photo by Troy Sankey