New Mexico Story Power amplifies voices from the front lines where extreme fossil fuel extraction threatens the lives and cultures of the people of New Mexico. It engages our necessity to protect our land, our water and our communities with personal accounts and visual narratives.
In this interview, Story Power interviews Mike Eisenfeld, Energy and Climate Program Manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) in Farmington, New Mexico.
Art by Asha Canalos
Mike Eisenfeld is the Energy and Climate Program Manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) in Farmington, New Mexico. He joined SJCA in 2006, following ten years as an environmental consultant in the Four Corners region. Mike’s work addresses energy issues such as coal, oil/gas, air quality and public lands, including efforts to stop oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region and advocacy for renewable energy. He specializes in the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy & Management Act, and Endangered Species Act compliance.
NMSP: Can you tell us a little about your history, where you grew up?
ME: I grew up in North Haven, CT. My dad was a doctor, and my mom’s an artist. I would characterize my upbringing as classic 1960s suburbia, and fairly liberal. My folks felt that civil life was important – they’ve always been involved in democratic processes, things we often take for granted today like women voting, civil rights issues, and so on. I got a lot of that early on.
Because my dad went to Yale, there were always a lot of people around, and I was exposed to a lot of different cultural things, people from India, from Egypt…. And then my mom, with her art, was always involved with the community. She’s one of those people everyone knows.
And then came the 70s, and I was just sort of a burnout teenager.
NMSP: Where did the interest in environmentalism come from?
ME: It was just part of our family. My mom would take us out hiking at Sleeping Giant State Park near our house in Connecticut. And then I had a couple teachers in high school who took students out to the Adirondacks… it was a progression of experiences. After college, I was interested in environmental issues, but what did that mean at the time? I did some internships and started trying to figure out what was happening at that point.
NMSP: Your work history begins with the arts, but you have an advanced degree in environmental policy and management…
ME: I’m the product of an artist and a doctor – so I guess there was a tension between the creative-emotional and the cerebral-empirical. In the 80s I went to Bates College up in Maine, which was pretty good, but there was no such thing as environmental studies at that time, so, by default, I studied history.
By the 90s there were a few academic programs more in line with environmental studies but not ones that merged law, history, economics, and science – like the one I had the opportunity to get into at the University of Denver. I thought it was important to understand the dynamics of all the connecting pieces and integrating various kinds of information entering the field.
Moving down to the Four Corners Region twenty-years ago was also quite the education; there was so much to learn. There’s a lot of history there; things are very complicated, and there are no easy environmental and economic solutions. So some of the things I’ve been able to work on have been very challenging – but very interesting, and requiring a dynamic set of skills. I hope that I’ve acquired some of those skills.
NMSP: What was it like coming to work in the region as an environmental advocate?
ME: When I first started working for San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA), I was hired for two main tasks: The first one was to fight the proposed Desert Rock Energy Project, which would have been the third coal-fired power plant in the Farmington area and located on Navajo Nation land. The entities who were pitching the project were hoping they could capitalize on the concept of Navajo Nation sovereignty; our position was that this would affect a much broader scope of people, particularly when you considered the air, water, land, community, and so on.
We were also fighting the idea of an energy export zone, or national energy sacrifice zone, which was actually a moniker given by President Nixon in 1972. The thing I’m always amazed by is that any community associated with large-scale energy extraction – be it uranium, oil, gas, and coal, are so quick to glob on the idea that we can have cheap coal, cheap electricity, etc. When you include the externalities, it’s not cheap at all.
NMSP: The debate over jobs and the economy, when discussing energy, is always complicated, but what about the social, cultural, and environmental costs of carbon and the high costs to public health?
ME: We’ve been trying to get the social cost of carbon into the conversation, and you’ll get these, maybe, arbitrary numbers assigned. But the bottom line is, in my opinion, as long as you continue to burn fossil fuels, you’re going to have costs that need to be incorporated, somehow. Otherwise, you’ll pay the high costs associated with bad air quality, including increased risks to your health and your family’s health.
NMSP: Are people aware of these costs associated with energy extraction?
ME: I think we’ve kind of forced it on them. Farmington is an interesting place, because most of the families, the structure, and the histories involve people who work in the industry. I’ve been in a lot of situations where people have come up to me and said, ‘I can’t go public with this, because industry is how our family survives, but thanks for what you do, because both of my kids have asthma.’ There’s obviously a trust element to this, and there are people out there who might not be vocal, might not go public, but they appreciate the fact that some of these things matter to someone.
I also think that Farmington has the potential to move toward a more diversified economy that creates other kinds of jobs. But right now we’re so entrenched with this idea that oil and gas are coming back up, that coal is coming back, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are a lot of highly-paid people who come into our community convincing people that this is true. For four years we had an economic development guy telling people that a train would be built to transport all the shale-derived oil and gas and coal from the Navajo Mine, away for export to a developing international market. People are constantly being fed ideas like this until the economic development guy eventually leaves for greener pastures. They’ve actually been proposing a train for decades, and it just never happens.
NMSP: Talk about energy technology and the role watchdog groups like SJCA play in the Four Corners Region.
ME: In the environmental community there’s kind of a big rift with the environmental organizations who are taking money to push clean coal, carbon capture and sequestration. As far as carbon capture/sequestration goes, we thought it was ridiculous nonsense, but there are a lot of places around the country where they’ve invested in sequestering gases. But look at the big problem they had recently in California because methane was being injected underground.
Several years ago, when we were focusing on Desert Rock, it was Rudy Giuliani’s law firm, the Blackstone group – a private equity firm out of New York, who came in and said ‘this coal plant is going to improve everyone’s air quality, it’s going to be great, it’s going to create all these jobs, and carbon dioxide isn’t a regulated pollutant, so it’s not a problem’. This was 2003 to 2006. I started working for SJCA in 2006, so that was my job: I’d go track these guys. So I’m going through everything, through their documentation, and I’m going through their Air Quality Permits and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and they’re basically saying everything is good to go. But we were on them – and there was a lot of media focused on them at the time, and they were saying carbon dioxide wasn’t a pollutant, not regulated, not our concern, and we bogged them down with all of these other issues, including mercury, which is a big problem up in the Four Corners area. Finally they started saying that they were going to turn it into a carbon sequestration project. At the same time, we knew ConocoPhillips had been doing carbon capture over by Navajo Reservoir, and it had leaked. Then the Desert Rock guys applied to the Department of Energy for a grant to make it into a clean coal-carbon capture sequestration project, and we challenged them. I did a lot of FOIA requests and saw all the back and forth, when all of a sudden they shifted to the idea that maybe now, for the sake of money, they’re on board with carbon capture. But the project had ballooned from 1.5 B to 4 B and they lost their air permit. They came in thinking it was a done deal and that we shouldn’t bother with the details. It’s turning up at every public event we have, every public hearing that makes a difference. We go through and deconstruct everything they have, and I think that’s an important watchdog role.
NMSP: In 2005, hydrological fracturing (fracking) was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Describe what was going on at the time?
ME: That was tough because, basically, in the Farmington field office, they were approving around a thousand new oil and gas wells under categorical exclusions, with no analyses whatsoever. That was pretty shocking. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was really difficult, because we realized they were paving the way to expedite and streamline development. Some of our work before that time had challenged the Farmington District Resource Management Plan in 2003 – which said that it was a multiple use office—not just oil and gas. We have world class archeology, some of the most amazing topography, but sadly those things are just pushed away.
There are other examples of the oil and gas and coal industry manipulating politics to transform this area into a one-trick pony. And what many people don’t know or understand is that a lot of the development occurs on public lands. There’s a constant push for revenue in New Mexico and the development excuse is that ‘we can’t educate your kids because we’re not getting oil and gas revenues’ or ‘if you don’t like oil and gas, you’re against educating your kids.’ The economic argument is really difficult, but when they’re drilling a thousand wells a year, you’re going to have all kinds of impacts – like a methane hot spot. Approximately 248 of the largest sources of methane are because of oil and gas facilities, processing facilities. The 249th is a coal mine. Industry says, ‘it’s not us’, that the methane is floating in from Asia. But we know it’s the 248 sources that were identified, even when they claim the study was done wrong. It’s this constant refuting – even when a study comes out, they’ll just respond with some report that everything’s fine. They’ll claim that you can stand next a natural gas processing facility and be just fine. I refer to the area as the pincushion of the United States, because they’ve drilled something like 40,000 wells. It’s similar to logging, like clear-cutting.
NMSP: How do experts communicate this with policy makers? Where’s the path for communication? What’s been most successful?
ME: I think the most successful thing for us is to be constantly involved. I’m the only paid person who works for an environmental organization in Farmington, but I used to work as an environmental consultant – so I understand how these things work. During a very important time in my life, I was working as an environmental consultant and being told to ‘write these things, look the other way, put together a quick assessment on climate change and say everything is fine.’ But I wouldn’t do it. So if they wanted help approving a project, or ask me to prepare a permit – and if I didn’t do it, they’d just get someone else.
I told my wife it was just eating me up. I told her that I could leave and go work for an environmental organization – and she said ‘yes, just do that, you’re a pain in the ass.’ But for my family, you know, it was half of the money I used to make.
NMSP: As more people becomes aware of what’s going on with pollution, water, and energy, what kind of support do watchdog groups need from the general public?
ME: I think just become members. SJCA is based in Durango where it’s more publicly supported. But there are lots of people here who maybe can’t devote time or don’t have the skills but will give us a hundred bucks and a thank you. To me, it’s a democratic process, and if I want a roof put on my house, then I want a good roofer. I also think this work is important because we’re in a part of the country where oil and gas has been all over our landscape since the 1950s. We’re not one of those places where it’s conceptual or proposed, the pressing issues are about reality: who’s going to clean this up, what are the added problems? I firmly believe that on the public lands, a lot of the oil and gas companies are going to take their royalties and tell the Federal Government that they are the ones responsible for the cleanup, not industry. And what’s the cost of that? You want to bring that into the economic equation?
I’d like to see more people who live in these communities listened to. What’s it like to live in Farmington, in Santa Fe? I think it’s important to document these things. A lot of this stuff is a roller coaster. One minute you’re losing your faith, the next you’re kicking somebody’s butt. You can get bogged down pretty quickly in the technical aspects of a lease sale, but when agencies and politicians see a hundred and fifty people turn out for a hearing or rally – and it’s not just me and a few other people anymore, but a whole bunch of people who are saying ‘this is wrong’, that makes a difference. It’s a heartfelt thing hearing those stories, because what if it was in your backyard or in your community?
NMSP: Do you think Standing Rock was a cultural shift for people? Do you see something like that potentially happening in New Mexico?
ME: I think it provided a lot of people with a sense of engagement and a sense of understanding. But I would also say to look around where you live. Look at the history of Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, or Farmington. Look around and do an inventory, and if you want to be involved in environmental issues, there’s plenty to do here. There are a lot of people working in New Mexico and the Four Corners areas who are kind of invisible, who do a lot to try and change the course. People who are in their 60s or 70s who were involved with making sure the Navajo Nation uranium miners were compensated, and the policy shift that led to no more uranium on the Navajo Nation. That’s a huge thing. Look at the unresolved issues, like compensation, associated with the people who’ve had their lives altered by being exposed to these things. (one recent example: Gold Mine spill on the Animas River)
NMSP: Do you think the Health Impact Statements will be helpful, maybe bring in other agencies and additional support?
ME: There have been some health assessments done in some of the impacted communities, in Counselor and Nageezi. But in my opinion, when you do a Health Impact Statement, there should be a lot of information that goes into it, but it’s usually truncated. It comes down to that David versus Goliath thing where you have underfunded environmental organizations that are just constantly trying to squeak by. And we’ll all be poisoned in the meantime. To me it’s an ethical issue. We get a lot of people who come into our communities who want to be quickly appraised and brought up to date about a situation, they come and in and want the abridged version. It’s a kind of armchair journalism. People want to come in and know the story but not put in the time. But this requires a lot of time. The analyses that go into it, doing the research, what it means when they say they’re good to go, don’t bother challenging this. That tells me that we may want to get involved.
NMSP: You’ve been doing this kind of work for over twenty-years. Is there any advice you’d give to younger people who are just starting to be involved in activism. Or is there anything you would have liked to have known when you first began?
ME: I prefer advocate, more than activist, because all of us should be activists for the things that are important in our life. But being an advocate requires a sound educational base. Study natural resource issues, environmental law, and environmental science. I think the interdisciplinary approach is the best, but I also think that there are a lot of opportunities for people to understand what’s going on around them. You can be an artist and be involved. You can be a biologist, you can be a lawyer. Merging people and bringing some cohesion to the issues is important. I also think an appreciation for the complexity of culture is vital. I have a hard time when people come in and spend three days on the Navajo Nation and think they understand the Navajo because people embraced them. Twenty years in and I’m more confused than I’ve ever been. I’m more respectful about not coercing others. I think it’s important to provide information and a basis for understanding, but that you don’t overstep your boundaries.
Hopefully, whatever young people want to do, it is meaningful work. What I don’t like hearing is when people say, ‘I’m a hydrologist,’ or ‘I’m a biologist; not a decision maker’.
Be the decision maker. Be a leader. People need to step it up, take things on, and get more involved.