Legislator: Make energy central to economic development

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The energy industry can take heart from the last item of the last meeting of a legislative interim committee.

Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, chairman of the Economic and Rural Development Committee, proposes making the energy industry a central component of the state’s economic development strategy.

This would be quite a change in attitude. Instead of being the rich uncle who’s always on tap, energy would become an asset to be encouraged and protected, like high tech, manufacturing and tourism.

The proposal comes at a time when energy people (and entire regions of the state) are feeling picked on and under-appreciated. Besides the state’s unresolved controversies (the pit rule, the greenhouse gas emissions rules), there is a move by the Obama administration to steer investors toward renewable energies by altering tax treatment for oil companies. As we’ve learned, it wouldn’t do much to Big Oil, but it would hurt Small Oil – our New Mexico independents.

In four meetings held since the last legislative session, the committee heard about prospects and challenges for job creation, and many of the presentations were energy related.

Uranium: We’ve got it, and demand currently exceeds supply. Proposed projects are traditional shaft-and-tunnel mines. If proposals for mining and milling operations come to pass, they could create 13,000 jobs initially and 9,000 long term.

Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary-designate John Bemis acknowledged the five biggest problems: capital costs, operational risks, proliferation of nuclear weapons, waste disposal, and public fear. It would do a lot to calm public fears if we saw clean-up of the old mines. Bemis said two federal agencies are beginning some reclamation, but there isn’t much funding.

Representatives of the Cebolleta Land Grant in western New Mexico said a uranium deposit on their land could create jobs and help sustain the grant itself. Over time, the grant has lost more than 165,000 acres as heirs had to sell land to cover expenses. Revenue from an existing mining lease has already provided scholarships and will support roads and telecommunications in the future.

Electricity: We’ve got conventional and renewable power and the potential for more. Several speakers noted that New Mexico requires utilities to use 10 percent renewable energy, and California requires 33 percent. We could be selling renewable energy outside the state, but our aging transmission lines have reached capacity, they’re expensive to build, and the regulatory process is slow.

Sonia Phillips, with the utility Xcel Energy, said demand for electricity keeps growing. Xcel spent $1 billion to meet EPA mandates when its coal-fired power plants were built, and now there are new mandates. The company needs predictable regulations that make investment in New Mexico prudent, Phillips said.

Economic Development Secretary-designate Jon Barela was on the agenda to provide his “vision and legislative priorities” to the committee.

What they got instead was a primer in economic development that each member probably knows by heart: manufacturing, energy development, science and technology, business retention.

Blah, blah.

Call me an optimist, but I keep hoping for something entrepreneurial or creative. Despite eight listening sessions around the state, Barela still has no plan; the initiatives he’s pursuing were in motion before his appointment, and his legislative priorities aren’t new. He could at least dust off the plan of his Johnson-era predecessor, John Garcia.

Barela could even attend Economic and Rural Development Committee meetings to hear what they hear and – important for an appointee who has yet to be confirmed – cultivate relations with legislators. At a meeting where Barela was conspicuously absent, the committee had to ask that Barela or a representative attend their meetings. The committee also asked that Barela include energy in his economic development plans.

Meanwhile, meet Bernadette Sanchez, the new champion of energy – an Albuquerque Democrat and school counselor.

© 2012 New Mexico News Service