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Meet Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat from Silver City, New Mexico.   As the head of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, Bingaman has shown himself to be a good steward of the environment in many ways. He put together the Public Lands Omnibus Bill, which rewarded grassroots environmental groups across the nation with wilderness designations and protections on many watersheds and scenic areas. He is sponsoring more of the same, as well as cosponsoring a bill to expand and fund a Public Lands Service Corps, similar to the old CCC. Not only that, he is the sponsor of the American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009 (ACEL). Other legislation he is sponsoring or cosponsoring is targeted at coming up with clear models for coping with climate change, and research on the impact on water, mitigating the effects of climate change on public lands, and improving efficiency in manufacturing and in appliances (these last are combined into his ACEL bill).

Please follow me below for a look at how his energy policies affect New Mexican communities.

This is one in a series of Adopt A Senator For ACES diaries. RLMiller is coordinating a whip project in which a volunteer targets a particular Senator, ascertains and diaries the Senator's likely vote on ACES, and tracks the Senator's position as the bill moves through the Senate. Meteor Blades has previously written Adopt-A-Senator For ACES Targets Climate Legislation, and RLMiller originally announced Adopt A Senator for ACES, Win Friends, Influence Senate. Please contact RLMiller (email address in her profile) if you're interested in participating.

So Senator Bingaman is great on public lands. So far so good (very good!!). But as many environmentalists are quick to point out, Bingaman takes a little over 20% of his money from energy-producing industries, mostly electrical companies, but also mineral development corporations and the nuclear industry, so his positions are, and have been, more than a little friendly to drilling, mining, and nuclear development. A quick comparison of ACEL to ACES or to the Boxer-Kerry CEJAPA also points to numerous instances where he suggests goals that are lower, and farther off, and more negotiable, than in the other bills, nor does it make the cap and trade market process as transparent as in ACES. On the other hand, he has apparently thought through some issues a little more closely than Boxer/Kerry or Waxman/Markey.

Since I started this diary, I got totally bogged down comparing the details of each bill, and the Senate moved on without me. Who knows whether ACEL will ever see the light of day, but I think it has some important points that I would like to see carried over to whatever does get passed in the Senate. I am also coming to understand how Bingaman, while spearheading the carbon reduction/ transition to a green economy, is also hedging his bets re mineral development, possibly in deference to his donors, but certainly in deference to his constituents. Fortunately, there is lots of momentum for green initiatives in New Mexico, and I think Bingaman is counting on getting his solar/wind cake and eating his petroleum and natural gas pie, too.

A Tale of Two Booms
Case Study 1: Four Corners
Mexico is a poor state, with an economy dependent on federal subsidies, and on its physical attractiveness. Mineral development took off here, as it did all over the west, under the long nightmare of the Bush administration. Much of the extraction has been centered around the Navajo Nation, up in the northwest part of the state, and the long plains east of the Pecos River. While mineral development in the San Juan Basin (think Farmington/Shiprock area) has been hotly contested and just as hotly defended, much more extensive development on the fringes of the Permian basin has gone relatively unnoticed. All kinds of things going on here, but part of it is that residents of the eastern New Mexican counties tend towards conservative Texian culture, while while the Four Corners attracts, a wild mix of cowboys, indians, hippies, oil men, rich men, survivalists, militiamen, technojocks, fishing maniacs, etc.  Another part of it is that several sacred places, including waters, mountains, formations, and archeological sites, in the Four Corners have been damaged or threatened by mineral development.

But the evidence is clear: the quality of living in this region, which used to be barely above survival level, has increased. Every time I drive through the Four Corners (2-3X/year), the small Navajo communities have been spruced up a little more. Ramshackle tin-roofed shacks have been replaced by neat little houses (OK, boxy HUD houses that make a Volvo look curvy), rural areas are getting running water (thanks to Senator Bingaman!), sewage disposal and electricity for the first time, the folks are driving around in reliable newer model cars rather than the crazy junkers you sometimes see on the rez.

The idealist in me says: this kind of energy development is bringing more ill than its worth. The long-term effects of this extraction on the soils and the water can not be remediated in our lifetime. The companies doing the development include Halliburton (employee parking pictured above), among other global criminals. Booms will end and everyone will lose their lovely cars to the repo man.

The pragmatist in me says: Jobs today mean food on the table tonight, especially for people living in an area with much higher unemployment (and all the attendant ills) than the average American county. When Americans are so reliant on gas, why import it from the middle east (I try to buy all my gas from the Giant gas stations, which a major distributor of San Juan Basin petroleum. Buy local!!)?? I can totally see how Bingaman does not want to hasten the end of the extractive jobs in New Mexico by being too strict about carbon production. Not that it makes the lower standards acceptable. Without a livable planet the whole jobs thing becomes moot. But when the Hopi and Navajo actually unite to drive out environmentalists pushing green energy, you know you've got problems.

Bright side: The Navajo are acutely aware of the bitterness of the boom and bust of mineral development, and of the environmental repercussions of uranium and coal. Some native companies, from both the Navajo & Hopi nations, are moving towards solar power, both as a solution to rural electrification and as a way of leveraging their proximity to existing transmission corridors. Thanks again to Senator Bingaman for funding the smart grid for the Navajo.

Case Study 2: Eastern New Mexico

Eastern New Mexico is more unabashedly proud of its energy-related growth. The oil strikes of the 1920s and '30s have passed into legend, and the home page of the Lea County website proclaims:

Lea County has welcomed and fostered the energy industries - petroleum, natural gas, and more recently nuclear and renewables - for more than eight decades, and for those reasons Lea County has become known as the EnergyPlex - the nation's epicenter of energy commerce.

The Chihuahuan desert and west Texas plains are notoriously unfriendly landscapes. Nothing grows more than waist high, and almost everything seems to be in the tan to grey range. The towns, mostly built since WWII, look blown flat by the dust storms. I think there is still some pride in having control over the land here, and no one from the Sierra Club is going to waste their resources trying to save this unique landscape. But they are fragile, and since initial experiments of irrigating with the Pecos river waters ruined the land for growing, they have been trampled by a century of cattle grazing, and intensive mineral development.  Since the cowboys first wandered into the area, they've been digging up whatever they could, from guano in Carlsbad Caverns to the massive potash development. You can imagine how happy folks down there were when they struck oil and could stop carting out wheelbarrows of bat poop to make a living.

In the town of Artesia, you can see the pride these folks have in pumping oil, with the inclusion of the Navajo Refinery in their "Heritage Walkway" and the majestic, nearly life-sized "Derrick Floor" sculpture that dominates the Artesia skyline. Somehow I missed this sculpture last time I was in Artesia, but I think it says more than I could. The oil workers are heros, and the petroleum industry is heroic, truly American. These people will not love Bingaman for popping their bubble.

The idealist in me says: A place that boasts more sunshine and wind than anything else, eastern New Mexico is ripe for becoming a center for clean energy production and transmission. Eastern New Mexicans will be just as happy to support sustainable technologies to produce power, and building the transmission infrastructure (hopefully as part of a smart grid) will create good jobs to transition people out of extraction (which will come to an end someday anyhow).

The pragmatist in me says: The culture there wholeheartedly embraces a petroleum culture (professionally and as the basis for leisure activities) and will not take kindly to any kind of clean energy change. They also welcome nuclear waste, which is shows how incomprehensible the culture down there is to someone from northern/central NM. And honestly, I don't see the infrastructure for solar or wind creating as many jobs as the oil and gas industries do. Right now, there is infrastructure building (from roads to rigs), testing and safety inspection (I used to date a nipple upper and learned lots about this part), maintenance and operation, parts and services, alcohol and meth sales, etc. Point is, even if you don't work for an oil and gas company, chances are you serve the operations in some way.  My understanding with the solar arrays and wind farms is that there is quite a bit of infrastructure building, then very low maintenance costs (our electric company claims "maintenance-free for 20-25 years"). Looking at the Bureau of Labor stats, folks down there make some of the best money in the state.

The bright side: Even the nouveau hippies and the trustifarians of Santa Fe recognize that a big sector of New Mexico's present and future economy lies in energy development, and Governor Richardson's & Bingaman/Udall's initiatives to make New Mexico a "Green Energy" state have already brought jobs at solar power plants, improved our puny hydroelectric resources, and expanded our wind farms. Of course, the green contingent also complains about the intrusiveness of the wind farms in their otherwise cool shots of the landscape. I'll repeat the suggestion I gave one guy: just think of them as massive art installations. Like the oil fields and gas plants, many of these solar arrays and wind farms are placed out of eyeshot of the major tourist attractions in northern New Mexico.

Environmental Impact
Case Study 3: Los Alamos & WIPP: The Son of the Nuclear Monster
New Mexico's Nuclear Enchantment: Patrick NagataniSince I was a little bitty kid, I have fought against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The nuclear bomb was famously born here in New Mexico. I have been down to the Trinity site, on the modern-day White Sands Missile Range, and pondered the horror that was unleashed on the world by some of the brightest minds the human race ever produced. I always get unbearably sad in Los Alamos, and do my level best to avoid it. The level of toxins those people have dumped into the environment, including the water & the air, is unimaginable. For years, they apparently just threw the nuclear waste into the garbage & buried it in landfills everywhere. The water they use to wash their plutonium gets dumped right back in the water the rest of the state has to drink. Label me a bitter downstreamer (and downwinder, in the case of catastrophic wildfires like the Dome fire of '99, that incinerated a lot of carelessly stored toxic waste).

Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are of course, two different beasts, but both share the same toxic spawn, from depleted uranium to contaminated equipment. About a decade ago, the Department of Energy (abetted by then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Senator Bingaman), pushed through the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) to store the low-level waste (contaminated equipment). Although many New Mexicans fought it, the aforementioned communities in the southeastern part of the state welcomed it, and over the years, the standards for waste have been expanded to handle ever hotter material. The death of Yucca Mountain ensures that WIPP will continue to receive materials for some time.

Bingaman's ACEL offers the same incentives for nuclear energy development that ACES and CEJAPA do, including government loans & insurance, but Bingaman is a little more sensitive to the issue of nuclear waste, outlining an oversight program (run by a bipartisan, president-appointed committee) that would assess the best storage methods, locations, etc, and also look to means of recycling spent fuel rods.

Now, I get chills of horror down my spine when read I legislation (like in Bingaman's S. 1462) that says,

" Findings- Congress finds that-- (1) nuclear energy is a strategic technology and should be recognized for--(A) providing clean and secure domestic energy for the United States; and (B) reducing greenhouse gases; (2) the use and expansion of nuclear energy technology is essential for--(A) the production of electricity and other industrial applications; and (B) the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions;"

But the fact of the matter is, all the current "clean energy" legislation under consideration right now contains major incentives and protections for the nuclear generation energy. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change explains that the Congressional projections are based on the assumptions that a MINIMUM 40% of American electricity will be produced by nuclear power in order to reach the carbon reduction targets (even Bingaman's soft ones). They additionally explain that siting, construction, storage, delivery, and capacity for the solar & wind systems is just not going to come online fast enough to meet domestic needs. I don't really accept that in my heart of hearts.

Representing a state that not only produces its fair share of nuclear waste, but is also storing waste from all over the country, Bingaman is at least sensitive to the glaring problem presented by this reliance on "clean" nuclear energy-- that is that nuclear energy is in no way clean, unless waste storage can be addressed.

The idealist in me says: We need more nuclear power plants like a hole in the fucking head, and can make ends meet through deploying solar/wind production more rapidly, and using less to begin with.

The pragmatist in me says: Mmmm. Maybe not. If we really DO have to use nuclear energy, better have a plan in place for the waste, as Bingaman suggests, before we start ramping up production.

Bright side: I doubt that after a generation of watching the Simpsons, people are going to let nuclear power plants get built in their backyards. After the demise of Yucca Mountain, I am placing my bets with the environmentalists on this one.

The Water Energy Nexus
New Mexico is a desert state, and already we are seeing crunches, where water supply is not meeting human needs. One of the things that to me, makes ACEL stand out from either ACES or Boxer/Kerry is the thoughtfulness which Bingaman approaches the subject of water use in energy production. Hydroelectricity, steam, nuclear power, and some kinds of natural gas extraction, all use vast quantities of water and in some cases, the method changes the nature/quality of the water to such an extent it can't be returned to its origin.

Bingaman asks for work to be done to address many facets of these problems, from improving efficiency in water use during energy (including biofuel) production and distribution; desalinizing brackish groundwater (presumably with the giant ponds of saline water created by the frac'ing process of natural gas extraction); to determine and implement strategies for more efficient water use in the production and distribution of energy; and to offer funds to local governments, states and tribes for deploying water-efficient technologies.

By comparison, the other energy bills ignore the systemic impact of energy production on water supplies, and include only a WaterWise program to encourage water conservation on an individual level.

Idealist says: This is another good way to kill nuclear power, by critically assessing water use & post-use water quality.

Pragmatist says: At first I was skeptical of this, until a diary here alerted me to the great science program to get students, educators, and scientists involved at all levels of studying the effect of climate change on hydrology, in concert with the folks in Idaho and Nevada (what?).

What does it all mean?
Senator Bingaman is going to fight to keep the good paying jobs in New Mexico, but he also wants the green energy thing to take off here, and has a good chance of making that industry blossom.  I hope that when a final version of the climate change bill goes through, that the other versions adopt some of his more thoughtful stances, on nuclear waste disposal, water studies, and other environmental impact studies.

Originally posted to BoogieMama on Fri Nov 13, 2009 at 09:31 AM PST.

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