During his speech, President Biden cited the need for continued investments in both clean energy projects and the middle class, saying both are key to a healthy economy. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)
LOS LUNAS, N.M. — Hours before President Joe Biden visited a small town in central New Mexico to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the signature legislative achievement of his first term as president, a group of climate activists unfurled banners urging him to phase out fossil fuels.
At the turnoff to the Valencia county seat of Los Lunas, high above Interstate 25 which police closed for the president’s visit, the banners demanded Biden “INVEST IN RENEWABLES,” and keep fossil fuels “IN THE GROUND.”
Fifteen miles south in Belen, in a speech to supporters inside a wind tower manufacturing plant, Biden referred to the Inflation Reduction Act as a “clean energy law,” and said it contains $368 billion “related to climate.”
But a coalition of activists from across New Mexico say while wind energy is what they’ve been asking for, Biden’s climate agenda includes what they deem false solutions like hydrogen production, carbon capture sequestration and other types of market-based mechanisms that are supposed to transition away from oil and gas extraction.
“We don’t want to see New Mexico have a continued legacy of sacrifice zones, so we’re here demanding the ending of fossil fuels and investment in renewable energies,” said Julia Bernal, the executive director of Pueblo Action Alliance. “No hydrogen, no carbon sequestration, and no false solutions in general.”
The coalition is drawing connections between New Mexico’s legacy of uranium mining, oil and gas extraction, and the effects of the climate crisis. New Mexicans have felt those effects directly this summer through repeated heat waves and record temperatures.
There has been more permitting for oil and gas drilling during the Biden administration than the Trump administration, according to federal data.
More than half of those have been in the Permian Basin, the huge field of oil that stretches across western Texas and southeastern New Mexico, said Alejandria Lyons, coalition coordinator for New Mexico No False Solutions, who is originally from Los Lunas.
Creating a new market for hydrogen
While neither Biden nor any of the speakers before him explicitly mentioned hydrogen, the legislation he was there to celebrate includes many incentives for hydrogen production.
“We see this as a detrimental step for the future, what this could mean for the youth of New Mexico, and also what this means for any means of survival, in terms of taking steps amidst the climate crisis,” said Ennedith Lopez, policy campaign manager for Youth United for Climate Crisis Action.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has for years tried to bring hydrogen production to the state. Wednesday at the event with Biden, she said the results of the Inflation Reduction Act showcases New Mexico as “an energy state.”
“This is the kind of leadership that we have always deserved,” the governor said about the president. “He gets Congress to put in the money and investments, engage in labor, to be really clear that we can be climate leaders for the world.”
Lyons said the coalition has a lot of concerns about what the U.S. Department of Energy might be gearing up to do with those hydrogen incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act through the Western Inter-States Hydrogen Hub (WISHH).
Lopez said the coalition disagrees with the federal government and the New Mexico state government’s promotion of hydrogen as a climate solution.
Bernal said any market-based mechanism will only continue the legacy of extraction.
“You have to phase out fossil fuels,” they said. “You have to address the ways that global capitalism exploits labor, and exploits and extracts resources, and continues to make some people poor and others super rich.”
Threats to water
As the effects of the climate crisis get worse, water will only become more important in New Mexico’s arid landscape.
The coalition of activists say the fragile aquifer beneath Biden’s feet on Wednesday, the Albuquerque Basin, is threatened by many of the so-called “clean” solutions like hydrogen.
“Hydrogen, in many instances, is very resource-intensive, and it demands a lot of water,” Lopez said. “Being that we’re in New Mexico and we’re in a megadrought, we just don’t have that resource.”
Deirdra Velasquez is a member of Valencia Water Watchers, a grassroots organization which has been resisting the resumption of oil and gas drilling in Valencia County after the local government in 2022 loosened restrictions on hydraulic fracturing — another method of oil drilling that requires huge amounts of water.
They wanted to know how Biden is going to prioritize water conservation, especially in rural communities where water has been contaminated by extractive industry.
“Water is such a finite resource, and many of the solutions that have been proposed by the Inflation Reduction Act use an enormous amount of water, whereas other renewables tend to use less,” they said.
During his speech, Biden did not speak at all about hydrogen, oil and gas, or water concerns. Afterward, when Source NM tried to approach Biden to ask him about the activists’ concerns, a U.S. Secret Service agent said no press was allowed in the area where the president was speaking to and taking selfies with the public.
The banners unfurled above I-25 on Wednesday “reflect this need for New Mexico to phase out fossil fuels completely,” Lyons said.
“Why not just solely invest in renewables?” she asked. “Why not use all that IRA money to invest in locally owned renewables, things that can help the community, and real solutions?”
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