By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, normally enjoys strong support from environmentalists in his home state.
But conservation groups are not happy with a recent letter Udall and four other Senate Democrats sent to President Obama urging the administration fast-track development of liquefied natural gas terminals.
“This is terrible,” said Eleanor Bravo, southwest senior organizer for Food and Water Watch New Mexico, “We are very disappointed.”
In the two-page letter, Udall, along with his cousin, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., U.S. Mary Landrieu, D-La., U.S. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and U.S. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., complained about what they said is the Energy Department’s slow pace of reviewing applications for LNG export terminals, which would ship U.S.-produced natural gas to foreign markets.
“We strongly believe that the export of LNG can help the United States strengthen global energy security while generating significant economic benefits domestically in an environmentally responsible way,” the letter said.
“Anything that can allow for a more open energy market I think will be good for New Mexico,” said Wally Drangmeister, communications director for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
He said it was a “pleasant surprise” to hear about the letter.
New Mexico is home to the San Juan Basin, one of the world’s richest natural gas deposits. In recent years, flat prices have kept down the pace of drilling in the region.
“I’m a supporter of a national renewable electricity standard and strong standards on natural gas development to protect New Mexico’s environment,” Udall said in an email to New Mexico Watchdog. “But natural gas is an increasingly important part of a ‘do it all, do it right’ energy strategy with fewer emissions than coal or oil. It’s also an important industry in New Mexico, which provides jobs and energy to our communities, along with revenue for schools and state services.”
A recent study by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee estimated that a 10-cent increase in the price of natural gas translates into a $10 million boost to the state’s general fund.
A federal permit has been given a conditional OK for a LNG facility on the coast of Oregon, but dozens of other proposed plants aimed at shipping to overseas customers, especially Asia, are on hold from the Energy Department.
The letter also mentioned that LNG exports can act as a counterweight against Russia, which has been accused of using natural gas as a weapon against Ukraine and NATO nations in Europe, who are heavily reliant on energy from Russia.
“Even before the crisis in Ukraine, I’ve been pushing the administration to remove unnecessary obstacles to LNG exports in order to increase our allies energy security and to encourage the use of cleaner-burning fuel,” Udall said in his email.
That doesn’t sit well with Bravo, whose group is opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is used to extract oil and gas from below the surface.
Natural gas is “as dirty as coal when you take it into its total picture,” Bravo said. “And when you’re shipping it across the Pacific, you’re increasing the carbon footprint. And if we encourage these countries to use fossil fuels, they will delay their transition over to renewables.”
“Modern industrial societies require energy to operate, and they’ll get that energy from somewhere,” Drangmeister said. “The key is, we can be a part of that … The United States’ greenhouse gas production has gone down dramatically recently and that’s because of natural gas use” that burns much cleaner than coal.
Four of the five Democrats who signed the letter to Obama are up for re-election this fall.
In his email to New Mexico Watchdog, Tom Udall did not respond to a question about whether the pending election had any bearing on his decision to sign the letter.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski