Dirt roads zigzag across the desert just northeast of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and each one leads to a well, a tank or a pipeline. It wasn’t always this way, says Mario Atencio, who as a child used to visit his grandparents nearby.
Now a member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, he and other activists have been fighting oil and gas development in the area for years. Up until a few months ago, they thought they were making progress. Then oil and gas prices started to rise, and in November the governor of New Mexico introduced a draft of the Hydrogen Hub Act.
The bill, which will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session, provides a raft of subsidies designed to grow a new industry. If it passes, supporters say it will make New Mexico a contender to become a national hydrogen hub — one of four to be created under the national $1 trillion infrastructure law that passed in November. The hub would help further foster hydrogen development in New Mexico and make the state eligible for a chunk of the $8 billion in federal money earmarked for clean hydrogen production.
“We think that hydrogen is a really effective tool in our transitional effort,” says Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “We should be moving as rapidly as we can with new innovations and technologies.”
But while the governor’s office sees hydrogen as a silver bullet for some of the state’s biggest economic and clean-energy challenges, many environmentalists have begun sounding alarm bells. They say the state’s proposed plans provide little more than a hidden subsidy for the fossil-fuel industry.
“If you look at this area from space, you just see the vast spider webs of oil and gas facilities,” Atencio said. “The hydrogen hub would only lock all of that in place.”
A test for the green fuel of the future
For decades, hydrogen has been lauded as a potential clean fuel to replace conventional fossil fuels. Many energy experts say that it may one day be used in sectors not easily powered by electricity — things like aviation, steel production and long-haul shipping.
But in New Mexico, the dreams for hydrogen are even more ambitious. New entrepreneurs and old fossil-fuel companies alike are proposing burning hydrogen for heating, converting shuttered coal plants and powering all types of transportation — from buses to cars.
They say it will help stimulate the economy and enable the state to take advantage of aging infrastructure. Rather than moving to a new energy model, the companies pushing these projects promise they can use hydrogen to clean the old model of fossil fuels.
But the undertaking may not be so simple. Hydrogen can damage traditional natural-gas pipelines, while burning it for heat or electricity can release pollutants like nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that can cause respiratory problems after prolonged exposure. Many clean-energy advocates worry that building out a complex hydrogen market will distract from simpler, cheaper renewable-energy plans.
“Number one for the climate is to build wind and solar to replace fossil fuel emissions,” says Tom Solomon, a co-coordinator for 350 New Mexico, a climate activist organization, and a retired electrical engineer. “There are some applications for hydrogen, but pushing hydrogen in the short-term at the expense of working on what will really save humanity is the wrong order to do things.”
Questions on “blue” hydrogen’s green credentials
Environmental groups also take issue with the type of hydrogen that the state hopes to subsidize.
Many environmental advocates want to limit production to “green” hydrogen, which is made from water — using electricity to separate the H from the O. If made with renewable electricity, green hydrogen can be created without producing any carbon emissions. But more commonly today, producers make “gray” hydrogen by pulling out the hydrogen in natural-gas methane and releasing the leftover carbon into the air. Meanwhile, the projects now being proposed in New Mexico are mostly “blue” hydrogen, where carbon capture is added to a gray hydrogen project to reduce its emissions.
The Hydrogen Hub Act as drafted does not distinguish between any of these colors. Lujan Grisham wants to allow for clean production of any type of hydrogen that meets certain emissions targets. She recognizes that this approach opens the door for fossil-fuel companies to produce hydrogen with natural gas and get paid for it. Indeed, even some gray hydrogen producers — with no plans for carbon capture — could qualify for subsidies in the early years of the bill’s passage.
It’s for this reason that environmental groups have derided the bill as a cash cow for the fossil-fuel industry.
“There’s this idea that we can just slap some bandages on the fossil-fuel approach and everything will be fine,” said Mike Eisenfeld, a Farmington resident and member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group. “People are excited about blue hydrogen, but a lot of us here think that would be a death sentence.”
Lujan Grisham says as long as the hydrogen is clean, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from.
“[Fossil fuels] are here. It would have been great if in 1930 we’d thought about this a little differently, but we didn’t,” she says. “We should never find ourselves in a situation where we use all of one thing and never any of the other.”
How clean is clean?
Many citizen and environmental groups have criticized the speed with which the bill is being considered. Lujan Grisham has made it a legislative priority for the upcoming session, leaving little time for debate over whether a hydrogen hub is something that communities want.
But hydrogen advocates say quick action is necessary both to make New Mexico competitive for the federal hubs and to meet the state’s climate goals.
“We are not going to reach our 2030 goal unless we do more than we’ve done,” said New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney. “Let’s get there. Let’s get there as soon as we can.”
But without further study, it’s not clear whether hydrogen produced under the regulations in the bill would lower carbon emissions.
While the drafted bill promises only to subsidize clean hydrogen, it does not account for pollution from natural gas production. Instead, the idea that natural gas hydrogen can be “clean” rests on the assumption that oil and gas operators will actually capture the methane produced through extraction.
And though a new state rule will require 98 percent capture beginning in 2026, it’s unclear how well it will be enforced.
Even the governor acknowledges the rule’s limitations.
“I keep bragging about something that’s not yet here,” she said. “The components are pretty ready, we’re not quite there for the deployment. There are other issues in the infrastructure and we expect industry to clean it all up.”
The governor may put her faith in the industry’s reliability, but surveys of oil and gas production areas across New Mexico suggest reason for skepticism.
A helicopter study by the Environmental Defense Fund in November found that 40% of wells surveyed in the Texas/New Mexico Permian Basin were actively leaking large amounts of methane. Satellite surveys of the San Juan Basin show levels of methane that far exceed the levels reported by the industry.
The conditions have left many on the ground uncertain that the industry can be trusted with a clean-energy transition.