New Mexico Wildfire Prompts Calls for Urgent Climate Action

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An oil drilling rig is pictured on April 24, 2020 near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Credit: Paul Ratje via Getty Images
An oil drilling rig is pictured on April 24, 2020 near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Credit: Paul Ratje via Getty Images

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The largest active wildfire in the United States—already more than half the size of New York City and quickly growing—is forcing thousands of residents in New Mexico to evacuate their homes. It’s just one of more than a dozen blazes already raging in the Southwest during a particularly early and destructive wildfire season, prompting calls from state lawmakers to urgently address climate change, even as New Mexico continues to pull hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil out of the ground every single day.

“Our communities are experiencing a devastating drought, in fact, the worst drought in over a millennia, and unprecedented wildfires, including over a dozen wildfires across our state months before fire season,” U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, said during a committee hearing of the New Mexico Legislature last week. “The science is clear—climate action cannot wait.”

The Calf Canyon fire, which has already scorched more than 157 square miles of land and burned down homes that have been around for centuries, is the latest brutal reminder of the rapidly worsening consequences of the climate crisis, driven largely by humanity’s unquenchable thirst for energy and the fossil fuels that still provide it.

In some ways, the Calf Canyon fire is also highlighting what’s at stake if major oil and gas producing states like New Mexico can’t move beyond the immediate financial allure of fossil fuels, as more and more economic experts say that failing to quickly transition to renewable energy and other low-carbon sources will have far more devastating consequences for the U.S. economy in the long run

Even as unprecedented wildfires, floods and heat waves in recent years continue to show with horrifying clarity the threats posed by climate change, politicians in fossil fuel economy states like New Mexico—many of them Democrats—continue to be the largest roadblock to President Biden’s attempts to pass national climate legislation.

West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin is the most visible example of this political dynamic. But behind closed doors, Biden also faces immense pressure from Democrats in Western states to back off any policy that could hurt the fossil fuel industry for fear of losing seats in the upcoming midterm elections. That includes Democrats in New Mexico, where oil and gas production on federal land make up a significant portion of state revenue. That pressure has only increased amid the Ukraine war and as the midterms draw nearer.

In fact, New Mexico has a particularly interesting political dynamic when it comes to addressing global warming. Led by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the state has emerged as an unexpected climate champion in recent years, winning praise from environmentalists for state efforts to support renewable energy and pass climate policies. 

For example, the state has tripled its renewable energy capacity since 2019. And last year, New Mexico adopted new regulations aimed at limiting methane emissions from oil and gas flaring, with regulators now proposing additional rules that would also help reduce ozone pollution emissions from fossil fuel operations. Methane, as you may know, is upwards of 80 times as effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the short run and scientists say tackling those emissions is critical to curbing climate change.

But New Mexico is also the second largest oil producing state in the country, contributing more than 10 percent of the total U.S. oil output in January, with more than a third of the state’s budget in recent years coming from oil and gas royalties on public lands. That has forced Democrats there to search for compromises that can advance policies to support renewables and mitigate climate change without hurting the state’s bottom line and jeopardizing Democratic seats.

For Rep. Stansbury, a freshman Democrat who quickly rose from obscurity to prominence among Capitol Hill’s climate hawks, New Mexico’s sometimes contradictory politics represent, in many ways, the broader crossroads the nation currently faces as it attempts to reckon with the climate crisis.

“One of the strange and incongruent realities of our time is that we’re living in a moment of a climate crisis at the same time that the oil and gas industry is booming in the United States,” Rep. Stansbury told the Washington Post. “And there’s so much cognitive dissonance around that it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around.”

On Monday evening, firefighters continued to battle the Calf Canyon fire, as well as another big blaze, the Hermits Peak fire, as officials issued further evacuation orders near Sante Fe and Las Vegas, New Mexico. It’s the second time in recent months that we’ve seen a wildfire take a dangerous turn toward populated residential areas—something researchers warn will only become more common as the climate warms. But while thousands of New Mexicans have already fled, not everyone feels as privileged to be able to pack up and leave.

“This is all I have,” David Lopez, a mechanic who lives with his family in two trailer homes a couple miles northwest of the fires, told the Associated Press as he sprayed water around his property and raked away dead grass, hoping to stop any flames from reaching his only home. “I worked really hard for it.”

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Today’s Indicator

23.4 percent

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