3,800 permits backlogged

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Numbers steal the show at energy hearing

By Sherry Robinson

Irony seemed to be a guest last week along with Harrison Schmitt, who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee.
The designated Secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department talked about the department’s budget needs and commented on the energy industry on the same icy day that thousands of people were losing their natural gas service.
I was there to see what he knew about New Mexico’s energy industries. The former astronaut has, after all, been absent from the state for decades.
Others, like retired Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Mel Buchwald, were there to see if Schmitt would sound as wacky in person as some of his published statements. Buchwald, whose name graces many scientific papers, thinks it’s embarrassing to the state that somebody of Schmitt’s extreme views, despite his Harvard pedigree, could become a cabinet secretary.
Schmitt seems comfortable in his new role and has learned enough to speak at length on the department’s operations.
He was warmly welcomed by Chairman John Arthur Smith, a fellow denizen of southwestern New Mexico, and the committee’s Republicans.
The other Democrats were cordial but clear about their environmental concerns.
After Smith invited Schmitt to share his background, I learned that from about 1982 on, he was involved in mining firms and some tech businesses in New Mexico, and is active in the American Society of Petroleum Geologists. Mentally, I added a few points in his credibility column.
“I have learned the business side of the economy,” he said. “I think a great deal of my experience will be appropriate.”
The real show stopper wasn’t Schmitt, it was one statistic: 3,800. This is the number of permit applications backed up in the Oil Conservation Division, the result of the hated pit rule and an 18 percent vacancy rate in the division.
A department staffer explained that 3,000 of those permits were for below-grade tanks that are prevalent in northwestern New Mexico. Which happens to produce natural gas, a commodity for which we now have an enhanced appreciation.
“The bottleneck created since the pit rule was enacted is serious,” Schmitt said. “We need the right kind of people to push permits through the system.”
Sen. Carroll Leavell, a Jal Republican, said the delay is hurting the state. “We want a safe environment, but we’ve killed a lot of opportunity,” he said. “Drill rigs produce tax dollars.”
Leavell also pointed out that the uranium being enriched in the massive plant at Eunice comes from Saskatchewan.
“New Mexico is missing out on an opportunity,” he said.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, raised the issue of abandoned uranium mines. Previous efforts to raise money for reclamation by taxing the industry have failed because there’s no industry to tax.
“If we open new mines,” Schmitt said, “the tax revenues would certainly help and would give us some options.”
It’s a twisted bit of irony to tell all those folks, mostly on the Navajo Reservation, who are still living with the effects of old uranium mines that the only money for remediation would come from new uranium mines.
Schmitt stuck carefully to the department’s business, for the most part, and didn’t express the views on environmentalists, climate change and government that have provoked criticism.
Except for one slip in predicting a bad fire season based on a correlation of precipitation and sunspots.
That, said Buchwald, was the only wacky statement Schmitt made that afternoon.
Considering the level of frustration with the previous administration among producers, it’s understandable that they welcome Schmitt.
But we have bigger problems than the pit rule.
The greatest irony of all may be that natural gas production needs electricity, and electricity production needs natural gas, and they all need pipelines and transmission lines.
It doesn’t take a Harvard education to predict that in the coming investigations of outages in the state, it will boil down to infrastructure.

Sherry Robinson
NM News Services