By James Jimenez, Albuquerque Journal
Mar. 27, 2020

As the world energy markets have shown in the past few weeks, New Mexico’s over-reliance on oil and gas revenue leaves our state vulnerable – not just to the economic effects of oil price fluctuations, but also to short-sighted demands from the industry that are detrimental for our children and the health of our communities.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has been on the right path in working to boost education spending, diversify the state’s economy, and aggressively fight climate-wrecking methane pollution. But any day now, I am sure the oil and gas industry lobbyists will come to her seeking relief from new methane rules, hoping to use the recent drop in oil prices as an excuse to avoid oversight.

However, now is exactly the right time for New Mexico to enact nationally leading regulations to reduce methane waste and pollution. The downturn means New Mexico’s school funding and other key budget priorities are vulnerable, and without nationally leading regulations, methane waste is costing the state tens of millions of dollars every year in valuable tax and royalty revenue.

Each year in New Mexico, oil and gas companies waste hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas through venting, flaring and leaks, all of which worsens air pollution and costs the state more than $43 million in royalty and tax revenue. That is enough revenue to increase pre-K enrollment by 80% and offer more than 7,000 additional New Mexico kids access to quality early childhood education.

We must deliver for New Mexico’s kids to prepare them for college and careers. As a state with endemic poverty and an underfunded education system, New Mexico has no money or time to waste. We need to harness every dollar we can to give New Mexico’s kids the educational tools and opportunities every child needs to succeed.

Our children are also disproportionately impacted by pollution from oil and gas operations, including ozone-forming toxins that worsen respiratory diseases and trigger asthma attacks. Those living near oilfields are also exposed to cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and toluene. The Navajo Refinery in Artesia has the second-highest levels of benzene pollution in the nation, with concentrations that are 300% of standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. That refinery is less than a quarter mile away from an elementary school.

The oil and gas industry’s outsized impact on our state budget and economy cannot be an excuse to ignore the detrimental effects of fossil fuel dependency on our climate, our air quality and the health of our communities.

By enacting nation-leading rules to reduce methane waste and pollution, by combating climate change through economy-wide market-based systems with declining emissions limits, and by strategically investing in proven programs to improve educational outcomes, we can simultaneously boost revenue, deliver better outcomes for our children, improve the health of our communities and environment, and, eventually, reduce our dependence on oil and natural gas.

Now is the time to enact strong, statewide methane rules.

James Jimenez is executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.