New Mexico has become a proving ground for a controversial form of energy development — hydrogen production.
In the state’s recently concluded legislative session, Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, introduced the Hydrogen Hub Act. The act set out to create four hubs located in rural parts of the state that would convert coal-fired power plants to hydrogen production. Grisham’s decision was strongly supported by the oil and gas industry and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce. While the bill failed to pass in the legislative session or through any democratic body, Grisham has reconstituted the bill as a multi-state plan for hydrogen energy, alongside Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory also supported the project. Los Alamos is a Cold War leftover that has had major nuclear accidents and was the development site for the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, as well as a third bomb that was dropped near Alamagordo, N.M., in a nuclear test.
Supporters argued that the act would enable the state to create well-paying jobs in rural communities and produce cleaner forms of energy. New Mexico is also seeking part of the $8 billion that the Biden administration allocated for this purpose.
During her first three years as governor, Grisham has pursued a consistent neoliberal course by placing a much greater emphasis on economic development than on environmental reform. She and her supporters have extolled the great benefits of the hydrogen process as a clean energy solution that would help the climate.
There are two methods of producing hydrogen for energy. The “blue process” uses methane gas to produce hydrogen, and the “green process” uses water. Neither process is actually “green,” although large, wealthy proponents of the processes have worked to make both seem like viable, clean options. The “blue process,” according to the Western Environmental Law Center, is “more damaging to the climate than directly burning fossil fuels for power.” And, in fact, the blue process requires a huge amount of fossil fuel energy, much of it from fracking, to convert methane to hydrogen. The “green process,” while supposedly environmentally friendly because it uses water, produces large amounts of nitrous oxide during hydrogen production, a compound that can cause serious health effects. It also requires the reallocation of already stretched and precious New Mexican water resources to hydrogen production.
Early testimony in committee hearings produced support from industry spokespeople, and local and state government officials extolled the positive economic and environmental opportunities that would be created by the bill. Several industry leaders testified that the ability to meet the environmental standards required in the bill do not yet exist, but they can be met. The bill seemed to have strong support after introduction, but soon afterward a set of environmental leaders began to offer protests about the proposed law.
Testimony and statements from several leaders of environmental and Indigenous groups led to a powerful counter-narrative. Jeremy Nichol of WildEarth Guardians stated that ”… any efforts that propel more fracking are dangerous, destructive and diametrically at odds with meaningful climate action.” Noah Long of the Western Environmental Law Center claimed that “there are loopholes you can drive trucks through that will allow upstream emissions of all sorts.” Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance told legislators that hydrogen development, rather than helping the environmental crisis, would exacerbate it. Jessica Keetso spoke for several Indigenous groups and the Navajo Nation when she stated, “the Navajo Nation suffers some of the worst aspects of methane emissions … The fossil fuel hydrogen bill would only worsen public health.”
Some 200 people signed up to speak against the bill. In addition to the other comments, many lamented that one of the worst aspects of the proposed act would be that the money could be spent on cleaner energy projects like solar and wind.
The work of these activists and many others produced the positive result they worked so hard to achieve: the bills in committee died without going to the floor for a vote. The governor, however, refused to give up. Her staff reintroduced a “dummy bill,” a generic or emergency bill that allows stalled legislation to move forward. The new bill tightened emissions standards, but resistance remained steady, and it was not moved to the floor for a final vote.
Now, just a few short days after this legislative failure and the protests of a wide range of New Mexicans, Grisham has decided to take matters into her own hands.
Without any consultation of legislative leaders, she announced on Feb. 24 that New Mexico would join three other states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — in teaming up on a regional plan for a hydrogen energy hub to compete for a slice of the $8 billion in federal funds. When questioned about how New Mexico could join this coalition after the defeat of the proposed legislation, a spokesperson replied that the repeated failure of the legislation does not prohibit New Mexico from moving forward with a hydrogen energy infrastructure.
The executive leadership of the state is sending a clear message to its citizens: it is willing to subsidize private entities in an enterprise that is based on, at best, a questionable enterprise instead of investing in safe and healthy energy alternatives.
Photo: Fracking in the Greater Chaco landscape of northwest New Mexico. Credit: Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance, via WildEarth Guardians