Solar is taking over New Mexico, baby.
Photo: AP

The clean energy revolution has arrived, and... it’s complicated. New Mexico is now the third state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy mandate, with the legislature passing a bill Tuesday mandating the state reach that goal by 2045. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign the bill any day now.

That doesn’t mean everybody’s happy with it, though. Some indigenous grassroots groups feel the voices of the Navajo and Pueblo people who live nearest to the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure, including in the state’s northwest corner, weren’t properly consulted during its drafting.

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The Energy Transition Act passed the state Senate last week, and the state House passed the bill earlier this week. It’s right in line with Grisham’s 2018 campaign promise for New Mexico to become a leader in the clean energy sector. The state’s new renewable portfolio standard, per this bill, calls for 40 percent renewables by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, and at least 80 percent by 2050. These targets are right in line with California’s and Hawaii’s, the other two states that have passed 100 percent clean energy mandates.

This will be a dramatic change of course for the state, which is the third-greatest oil producer in the U.S. as of 2019. In fact, oil production in New Mexico hit a record high of nearly 246 million barrels last year, according to the Albuquerque Journal—a 42 percent jump from 2017. Natural gas production in the state also increased by 13 percent.

In particular, the coming energy transformation will be a big deal for the state’s indigenous communities. Many of them—from different Navajo chapters to different Pueblos—live near the oil and gas wells and there’s concern about a variety of negative health impacts as a result. On the other hand, some benefit economically from fossil fuels, having sold their land to oil and gas companies to receive a paycheck every month.

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New Mexico Democratic Legislator Nathan Small, who co-sponsored the bill, told Earther that officials began consultations with executive leadership at both the Navajo Nation and some of the 19 Pueblo tribes at least 15 months ago, before the bill’s text was even being drafted. He did not offer exact names or dates.

But not all indigenous people feel that their voices or concerns about the bill were heard. In February, a coalition of more than 60 groups and individuals including national Native-led groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth sent a letter to Gov. Grisham and state legislators that outlined their issues.

Those issues included concerns over a lack of funds to remediate lands historically impacted by fossil fuel development and to conduct health assessments in some of the Native communities dealing with the pollution emitted from this industry. The bill does allocate $30 million each toward cleaning up any shuttering facilities, but it does not mention whether these funds could go toward the surrounding area.

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The group also took issue with the fact that the bill does not explicitly say “no nuclear.” It does, however, say that renewable energy resources “do not include electric energy generated the use of fossil fuel or nuclear energy.”

Another issue the indigenous coalition raised—as well as local environmental group New Energy Economy, which supported the coalition —is that the bill allocates up to $375 million to any energy-generating facility that is being abandoned as a result of this transition.

In New Mexico, the plant of contention is the San Juan Generating Station, a coal plant that must shut down by 2023, per the bill. New Energy Economy has equated this piece of the bill to a “bailout” for the plant and its utility owner, Public Service Company of New Mexico or PNM. The indigenous coalition asked the state to force PNM to share the costs associated with shutdown. The bill does not appear to require anything of the sort, instead placing the multi-million-dollar cost entirely on taxpayers.

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Kim Smith, a Diné woman who’s a staff organizer with New Energy Economy and who co-signed the letter, told Earther that no “indigenous grassroots representation” was consulted and that if any executive officials, like potentially former Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, were in fact consulted, that they failed to report back to chapter presidents. And they should’ve, Smith said.

“These impacted communities have chapters, villages,” Smith told Earther. “Within those villages are officials who represent those villages, and to my knowledge, none of them were consulted, as well.”

In short, there’s unhappiness about the level of tribal consultation that took place. There’s also disagreement on the bill’s merits between local elected officials and some tribal executives. For instance, major Native leadership like Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez supports the bill, but Shiprock Chapter President Duane Yazzie does not.

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This reminds us that indigenous people are not a monolith, but hold a variety of opinions when it comes to energy—especially in New Mexico. It also reminds us of the tricky relationship many Native American people have to the industry because its members often benefit financially through land leases and employment, but the development also is threatening sacred sites (and their health).

Small is aware that consultation efforts could’ve been better. Democratic State Senator Jacob Candelaria even publicly apologized during a committee hearing on the bill for this lack of tribal consultation.

“There is always need for, room for, and learning that has to take place in order to more closely collaborate and work with different stakeholders, especially sovereign tribal nations,” Small told Earther. “There’s always room for more conversation.”

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Here’s another problem: While this soon-to-be-law requires all energy consumed within the state to come from clean energy sources by 2045, it doesn’t stop the state from producing oil and gas to, then, export elsewhere. As the Energy Information Administration notes, less than one-fifth of the natural gas the state produces is actually consumed there. Most goes to Arizona.

“Without any limits on fossil fuel production, any goals for climate change mitigation are meaningless,” said Rebecca Sobel, the senior climate and energy campaigner for environmental organization WildEarth Guardians, to Earther. “Any steps toward renewable energy, we will support, but New Mexico is the No. 3 oil- and gas-producing state in the nation, and without addressing fossil fuel extraction and production, we are not working toward a real climate change solution.”

No one said solving climate change would be easy. New Mexico has definitely taken a step in the right direction, but the state could’ve gone about it more equitably, perhaps, to avoid all this drama in the first place. After all, a process that skips community consultation is far from a just transition.

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“This isn’t just an indigenous issue,” Smith said. “It’s a human race issue. We’re at a pivotal point when it comes to climate change.”