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Energy transition proposal could violate ban on funding fossil fuel development

Jonathan Cutrer
via Flickr

A grant process meant to help the Four Corners region recover from the closure of the San Juan Generating Station and reduce reliance on jobs from the oil and gas industry has resumed after a long hiatus caused by the world-wide pandemic.

Now, a community college in Farmington is applying for some of that money –– which was made possible by the Energy Transition Act passed in 2019 –– to create a new academic program meant to certify “clean” fossil fuels.

KUNM’s talked with reporter Jerry Redfern from Capital & Main, about how funneling these dollars into the program could possibly violate the law.

JERRY REDFERN: The interesting part of the proposal from San Juan College, it comes from their school of energy, where they're trying to set up what's called an environmental, social and governance or ESG program, to train students to be able to certify wells, or certify that the production that comes from certain wells is, "green" or "clean," or meet certain environmental, social and government standards so that buyers down the line could say: "Look, we're buying certified clean natural gas in this particular case."

KUNM: What is a clean fossil fuel? Is there such a thing?

REDFERN: Yeah, well, obviously the industry says that there is. The people not involved in the industry say that there definitely isn't. And it all kind of depends on how you want to parse that particular question. The federal government itself has laid this out somewhat clearly. You know, most of this development that we're talking about in the San Juan Basin has actually, I think, been leading toward a future hydrogen economy up there, which is something that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has been pushing for for years. Which on its own, without looking back behind you, is a very clean and remarkable fuel to use for making energy in the future. But, the production process can often be quite dirty.

KUNM: It looks like some of this cash that would fund this proposal would be in direct contradiction to some legislation. What law sits in the way and would it prove to be an issue down the line if the college would get this money, per se? 

REDFERN: The key overall thing, I think, is that the Energy Transition Act was set up to get the state moving away from using fossil fuels... Be it production, or burning them in your cars, or burning them in power plants for energy. That's like the general goal of it. So, you could say that a proposal to work to create more fossil fuels just goes against the general theme of what they're trying to do. That's not really a legal thing, though.

The real legal part comes in that there are three departments in state government that are doling out this money that comes with the Energy Transition Act to help retrain people being laid off from these two power plants. That's money that comes from the Department of Workforce Solutions. There's money that comes from the Department of Indian Affairs. There's money that comes from the Economic Development Department. And it's in the wording in the law for the Economic Development Department money that says specifically, none of this shall go toward future fossil fuel production, which that's that's kind of the whole point of the ESG program is to make fossil fuel production better and "cleaner, " so that more people will buy it.

KUNM: You pointed out that this isn't the first time the San Juan College School of Energy has tried to get some of this ETA money. What happened back then?

REDFERN: Well, the whole Energy Transition Act came around in 2019, when it was originally passed. And you might recall that in 2020, the whole world shut down because of the pandemic, right? So, all of these programs that the ETA was supposed to be funding this whole granting thing that we're talking about now... All sorts of stuff just got put on hold until after the pandemic because people couldn't meet. They couldn't hold the public meetings they needed to hold to debate the proposals for these grants, so on and so forth. And you know, over the course of two or three years, all sorts of different things change.

The current proposal from San Juan College, which is essentially just an update to the 2020 proposal, at this point, it's all written. It's all done. And it's been, I believe submitted to the Energy Transition Act committee is what it's called, which is the group that will make the recommendations to the three state department's on you should fund this, you shouldn't fund that. Yada, yada, yada.

Where we all stand right now is we're waiting for that committee to reconvene. It's been on hold, essentially, but not everything has yet been submitted to the committee. So, it's still kind of waiting for the committee to come together to talk these things over yet again, and have their public debates and the public comment on it. I spoke with Jason Sandel, who's the head of that committee. He was hoping to have that committee reconvene very soon after the fourth of July, but I've not yet heard anything more updated about that.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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