COMMENTARY: My parents Maria and Eduardo, both Mexican immigrants, settled in Lake Arthur way before I was born. A community that sits in the heart of southeastern New Mexico, it remains my sanctuary, the small town that helped define me.
Southeast New Mexico gave me a home where I fell in love with the dry and sometimes cool air, and the sweet smells of the farms that surrounded me. Falling asleep near an open window and under the bright stars, listening to voices hundreds of miles away that only AM radio could transmit late into the night.
My mornings were spent listening to the sounds of my parents talking — my mom preparing tortillas hot off the comal before my dad set off to empacar y recojer la alfalfa on the farm. Hours later, I would be welcomed with smiles from my closest of friends. After hours of public schooling in my tiny classroom and crowded hallways — with red, black and white draped all around — I’d walk to the gravel parking lot, where my mom would pick me up.
We’d make our daily afternoon drive south to Yates Petroleum in Artesia, where I would sit and wait at the head of a large mahogany boardroom table, with smells of old coffee being erased by the smells of glass cleaner. It was the sound of the roaring vacuum cleaner in the hallway that always told me it was almost time to go home and start the day over all over again.
A small and tight-knit community in southeastern New Mexico where hard work, perseverance, and audacious courage are required to survive, Lake Arthur is also the backdrop to a vision I have always had for my beloved state of New Mexico. A vision that lets New Mexico reach its economic potential, that holds onto its important history and culture, and gives every New Mexican family a chance to succeed, even if they live in a place like tiny Lake Arthur.
But as the first half of my first New Mexico Legislative Session comes to a close, I’m faced with a narrative that finds too much comfort in nostalgia: romanticizing the “old days,” and being resistant to a new future we must lead in.
I’ve seen and lived through the boom-and-bust oil and gas economy of New Mexico. I’ve seen our state grow its Land Grant Permanent Fund to one of the largest in the country, reaping tremendous benefits from oil and gas royalties. I’ve seen the neighboring communities of Lake Arthur get flooded with temporary workers when oil booms, some even camping in the streets or doubling or tripling up in one-bedroom apartments just for an opportunity to make a decent living, even if it’s just for a few months — or if they’re lucky, a year or more. I’ve heard the whizzing of new diesel motors and smelled the fresh tar on the ground.
But I’ve also seen too many of the bust years — young and old New Mexicans alike packing up their gear to go back home, with hopefully some money saved up in their pockets and the hope that there will be work again to pay for the home they just mortgaged. I’ve heard those diesels power down as their owners wait for the global market to make production profitable again, with many heading east to Texas to work on more lucrative operations, all the while our people here suffer.
I’ve seen that despite having a robust oil and gas industry and one of the largest land grant permanent funds in the country — $15 billion — New Mexico remains at the bottom of every list that indicates a good quality of life: No. 51 in child poverty. No. 50 in overall poverty. No. 50 in working-age women in poverty. No. 44 in income inequality ratio. No. 34 in unemployment. No. 48 in high school graduation rates. No. 49 in higher education attainment. No. 31 in the gender wage gap.
It’s clear that the answer to our state’s woes is not to drill more. The oil and gas industry would have you believe that by lining their pockets with more profit, by having taxpayers foot the bill for more corporate subsidies or give-aways to increase production, we all somehow stand to gain. Dishonest legislation introduced this session that would have opened up many of our state’s public lands to new mineral development was masked under the guise of creating a permanent endowment for children, but at what expense?
The future of oil and gas in New Mexico calls for more fracking, oil rigs and refineries that would have a major impact on our environment, water, climate and the health of our kids and families. A recent map produced by the New Mexico State Land Office in support of Senate Bill 182 proposed lands for drilling near or in cities, urban centers and communities where there are high populations of kids and families.
Yet at the same time, New Mexico’s untapped wind and solar power have the potential to supply all our state’s electricity needs and sell millions of excess Gigawatts to other markets. Given that the primary human activity accelerating climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, it makes both economic and moral sense to stop romanticizing the “old days” of oil and gas and invest in a future of clean energy.
While oil and gas will surely be a mainstay of New Mexico’s economy for years to come, let’s at least start trending in the right direction and invest in the infrastructure to help us develop our state’s clean, renewable energy.
Change is imminent — I see it today painted on the horizon from my mother’s window in Lake Arthur. Let’s embrace it.
Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, represents District 35 in the N.M. House of Representatives.