Dispatch New Mexico: Energy issues in the southeast

When it comes to energy production in New Mexico, there’s no place like the southeastern corner of the state.

It’s not just the oil patch. The Permian Basin, which stretches across southwestern Texas into southeastern New Mexico, certainly has vast amounts of oil and natural gas available for extraction, but that’s not the only energy-related industry in these parts. There’s also a corridor of activity that’s critical to the nation’s nuclear industry.

On Sept. 14, an energy summit was held in Carlsbad that was attended by more than 1,000 people. Hosted by Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, it was the third annual summit for this area of the state. Oil and natural gas extraction, nuclear power generation and an “all of the above” approach to energy production were topics at the event.

Unfortunately I wasn’t there, but Jeff Tucker of the Roswell Daily Record was, and he turned in a couple of detailed reports on what was covered at the summit.

Of course, the oil-and-gas business was a big agenda item—with housing, crime and infrastructure as side issues that area communities are struggling with. An influx of roughnecks and other workers creates a strain on housing, particularly with a lack of rental properties, while the burgeoning population has brought an increase in criminal activities. And more commercial truck traffic puts considerable wear and tear on the roadways, as well as increasing the risk of serious wrecks.

Lea and Eddy counties in particular are grappling with such growing pains, but with the dramatic decline in the price of oil these days, they’re also feeling the downside to the boom-bust cycle so typical in the extraction industry. Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb even said the prolonged drop in crude oil prices has cost about 1,000 jobs in the two counties in recent months.

Of course, that’s not the only thing going on in the southeastern part of the state, and Gov. Susana Martinez knows it. She took advantage of the summit’s podium to tout a sweeping new state policy that includes an “all of the above” approach to energy development.

That new energy policy, according to the governor, includes more than just exploiting the state’s oil-and-gas reserves. It also includes renewable energy development, which plays well to a growing segment of the state’s population. What plays better in the oil patch, however, is talk of another alternative to fossil fuels—nuclear power—since it has a significant presence in this part of the state.

More specifically, we’re talking about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Eddy County and Urenco USA in Lea County. (Waste Control Specialists, a radiation treatment, storage and disposal facility in Andrews, Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Hobbs, adds to the “nuclear alley” that some refer to).

What happened at the WIPP facility last year has been big news for some time now. WIPP stores and disposes of radioactive waste, and in February 2014, a fire broke out at the facility, followed by too-high radiation levels on-site. That brought operations to an abrupt standstill, and an overhaul of the underground ventilation system is now underway. Heaven only knows when WIPP will be fully operational again.

As for Urenco USA, it’s full speed ahead. At its plant just outside Eunice, this $4 billion facility (which is run by Urenco’s subsidiary Louisiana Energy Services) produces enriched uranium for nuclear power plants across the nation. It’s a critical step in the development of nuclear energy, which is a cleaner—though, some would say, far more dangerous—source of energy production.

Williamson recalled a major setback in the industry in 2011, when a tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing a meltdown and the subsequent release of radioactive materials. It was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, and Williamson said it slowed nuclear energy development.

Still, the industry is moving forward. Williamson said there’s “very aggressive growth throughout the rest of the world,” with 60 nuclear reactors now under construction in 15 different counties.

That bodes well for companies like Urenco. It’s also good for southeastern New Mexico, since it diversifies a regional economy that was once dependent on only one thing—fossil fuel. Now, it’s got a whole new energy source that’s almost certainly going to grow in the years ahead.

Tom McDonald writes this column for newspapers around the state as founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and is also the Roswell Daily Record’s general manager. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.