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 V.17 No.49 | December 4 - 10, 2008 

Commentary

Cow Farts, Coal and Combustion Engines

Oh, fair New Mexico! Our glorious skies! Our 70-mile views, our wilderness and our long, lonesome roads!

Our coal-fired power plants! Our extractive industries, our monster trucks and our methane-emitting cattle!

Our greenhouse gas emissions? Our love-hate relationship with national lists? How does our big, beautiful, relatively empty state rank as a pollution producer? The good news is, because we have fewer than 2 million people, our state’s total noxious emissions are low. But our small population is also the bad news. The state’s total emissions, divided by the number of residents, produces a pretty awful per-capita rating.

A set-in-concrete ranking is difficult to pin down—so many ways to measure, so many factors to consider. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 list of states that produce the least carbon dioxide shows us at an admirable 15th place with 59 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Half of that comes from generating electricity and about a quarter from transportation—or, from coal-fired power plants and long, lonesome roads.

Of the 50 states, tiny green Vermont wins first place with 7 million tons, while our next-door neighbor Texas takes the loser prize with a staggering 664 million metric tons. Luckily, our prevailing winds blow toward the east.

Forbes magazine’s more comprehensive list of green states uses six criteria: carbon footprint, air quality, water quality, hazardous waste management, policy initiatives and energy consumption. New Mexico ranks No. 20.

But the Pew Center on the States kicks us down to a dismal 40th place for per-capita carbon dioxide emissions.

How does our big, beautiful, relatively empty state rank as a pollution producer?

Reducing carbon emissions is easy—an economic depression, even a recession, will do it every time. The trick is to keep the economy from crashing while rebuilding it in a less wasteful way that spreads the pain around fairly.

Environmental policy usually comes from people who work sitting at desks instead of from people who work standing up—or work sitting on horses or tractors, in backhoes or big rigs. No criticism intended. It’s just the way big policy changes tend to happen. As a result, it’s workers in the industries that pollute the most who have the least input and who will be hit the hardest.

In New Mexico, our biggest pollution sources are energy production, transportation and industrial activity, including agriculture and construction. Those are also the activities that produce much of our state’s tax revenues.

The most promising replacement for revenue and jobs is renewable energy from wind and solar power. Unfortunately, there’s a significant time gap between the emissions cuts we need now and the point when renewable energy produces enough revenues to compensate for a drop in oil and gas severance taxes. 

Faced with long distances, semi-urban sprawl and minimal public transit, we’re also short on obvious solutions for reducing transportation emissions. The Rail Runner is a giant step forward. Its ridership should continue to increase along the Rio Grande corridor with its relatively high population density. But it’s not enough in itself.

Do we need to consider cutting the state’s beef and dairy industries? Maybe raise buffalo, which are lean and tasty and emit far less methane? That slamming noise you hear is the sound of our state’s long-suffering large animal veterinarians packing up and heading for the border, their retreat covered by enraged ranchers. Such a plan would also pay no mind to the wisdom of preserving and increasing semi-local food production.

Cut back construction? Considering the drop in home sales and growth of empty retail sites, that would be sadistic. Competition is forcing smaller, greener building anyway, and there’s been a push in the last few years to build more concentrated infill living units.

It’s likely three possible developments in the near future will overshadow any tweaking of the state’s energy policies. On the ominous side, the proposed Desert Rock coal-burning power plant could wipe out any gains achieved from implementing the dozens of policies recommended by Gov. Bill Richardson’s Climate Change Advisory Group. The group’s emissions-lowering solutions look at everything from cutting methane lost during oil and gas production to more efficient power transmission.

On the positive side, the Western Governors Association has just sent a four-page letter to President-elect Barack Obama outlining far-reaching policy changes that balance Western economies and jobs with critically needed reductions in greenhouse gases.

Also encouraging, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, replacing John Dingell (D-MI). Nothing against Dingell’s long service, but he has dependably sided with Republicans to block the passage of better gas mileage standards for U.S. car manufacturers. It’s an encouraging sign the Obama administration has pledged to seriously work for energy independence and job growth using greener technology.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

 
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