NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico is considering becoming home to a federally sponsored hydrogen hub. Proponents argue that it’s a way to move the state away from fossil fuels. However, some members of the public decry the proposals. The latest legislative hearing highlights the intensity of the debate.
State officials and residents have been talking about hydrogen for months. On Wednesday, stakeholders, the public, and some lawmakers from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee met to discuss how to move New Mexico closer to being a hydrogen future. Views from both supporters and opposition were heard.
“We are now living in a climate catastrophe with the worst health care in the world,” said Krystal Curley, the executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, an indigenous, woman-led non-profit. “We cannot afford another boom and bust industry in McKinley County.”
Still, many do support bringing hydrogen production to New Mexico. Earlier this year, Navajo Nation leaders met with state officials to discuss hydrogen: “We support a future for solar, wind, helium, and hydrogen development that will create thousands of new jobs and boost our Navajo economy,” Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon summarized in a press release.
But Wednesday, speakers made it clear that not everyone agrees. One speaker broke into tears while giving public testimony, pleading to stop the plans from moving forward.
“My people have already dealt with the realities of fossil fuels. And it’s already damaged our land. And now you guys want to create more hydrogen? Like, don’t you see that there are people living on the land, and animals, and life?” the commenter asked while holding back tears. “And you guys are doing it for money.”
Spurred on by the U.S. Department of Energy’s plan to spend $8 billion to develop several hydrogen hubs across the country, some New Mexico leaders hope to bring hydrogen to the state. During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill to incentivize the program — that bill died, but stakeholders are still discussing options.
On Wednesday, June 15, experts and the public discussed the potential for hydrogen in the state. State officials and the state’s colleges and national laboratories are considering how to best submit a proposal to the Department of Energy to get a share of federal funding for hydrogen. Meanwhile, public comment continues to be emotional.
“Hydrogen power is not clean nor sustainable,” Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo, the policy lead for Yucca Action, a non-profit focused on holding elected officials accountable, said on Wednesday. “Blue hydrogen might be competitive in 2050, but that’s not true today.” Juarez-Alonzo’s solution is to focus on developing solar and wind instead.
This isn’t the first time New Mexicans have spoken out against the project. Last year, more than two dozen organizations sent a letter to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and state senators calling hydrogen hub proposals “counterproductive.”
The big-picture idea behind so-called “blue hydrogen” is to use it as a fuel for vehicles, airplanes, and even construction machinery. Under President Biden, federal officials have touted the potential benefits.
“Hydrogen energy has the power to slash emissions from multiple carbon-intensive sectors and open a world of economic opportunity to clean energy businesses and workers across the country,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a June 6 press release. “These hydrogen hubs will make significant progress towards President Biden’s vision for a resilient grid that is powered by clean energy and built by American workers.”
But research from last year suggests that hydrogen may not be as carbon-clean as originally thought. A study by a Cornell University professor and a Stanford University professor estimated that blue hydrogen (hydrogen created from captured emissions from other processes) has a 20% larger carbon footprint than burning natural gas or coal for heat. “The use of blue hydro-gen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds,” they wrote in their research.
In New Mexico, officials are considering hydrogen as a way to reduce statewide emissions. For years, the Governor has been pushing for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, she issued an executive order to reduce emissions by 45% by the year 2030.
State officials say hydrogen is an option to give New Mexico-based companies a way to access “carbon neutral” energy. New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia Keyes says hydrogen could offer an economic opportunity for New Mexico.
“There is not a company that approaches us now that doesn’t talk about how they’re gonna get their power,” Keyes said in Wednesday’s meeting. “The economy for hydrogen, we estimate, could be more than $1 trillion, in the world. So, it’s really quite extraordinary.”
The Governor has already announced plans for a hydrogen manufacturing and distribution center near Albuquerque. But as statewide discussions continue, it’s clear that it will take some time before large-scale hydrogen production enters New Mexico. After all, there are strong feelings on both sides of the debate.
“The Navajo people do have a valid complaint,” State Senator George Muñoz (D-Cibola, McKinley and San Juan) said in Wednesday’s meeting. He sponsored the failed hydrogen bill during the legislative session earlier this year.
“They have a valid complaint because if you drive 30 miles down the road to Milan, you still see the uranium tailings, right? You still see some of the damage that’s done that’s never been cleaned up,” he said.
“In rural New Mexico, they’re the ones that bear the burden and bear the brunt of the environmental issues across the state. Sometimes, for the betterment of everyone else. That’s kind of hard to swallow,” Muñoz said.
But, “hydrogen is going to be produced somewhere across the US, whether it’s Utah, Texas, it’s going to be produced somewhere,” Muñoz added. “And someone’s going to benefit from the cost and the money, and so we need to take a hard look on that.”
Curtis Segarra is a data-focused reporter at KRQE News 13. You can send story ideas or follow Curtis on Twitter.