Oil & gas industry joins fight against nuclear waste site proposed in southeast New Mexico
November 7, 2023
Some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin came out against a proposed nuclear waste facility in southeast New Mexico.
The basin spans southeast New Mexico and West Texas and is regarded as one of the most active fossil fuel regions in the world. It was forecast to produce about 5.9 million barrels of oil per day (bopd) in November, according to the Energy Information Administration. That is about half of the more than 12 million bopd of total U.S. output.
All that oil production is driven by some of the world’s largest energy companies establishing heavy operations in the region.
Occidental Petroleum, Concho Resources, Diamondback Energy and Fasken Oil and Ranch signed on to a Nov. 1 letter from the Permian Basin Coalition, along with other oil and gas companies and local governments, to oppose a nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad and Hobbs that Holtec International proposes.
Holtec proposed to build a facility to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel rods at the site on the surface, ultimately with a capacity to hold up to 100,000 metric tons of the waste brought into the region via rail from nuclear power plants around the country.
About 2,000 metric tons of the waste is produced annually by reactors in the U.S., according to a report from Department of Energy.
The proposed location was on an about 1,000-acre tract of land near border of Eddy and Lea counties.
Government and business leaders in Eddy and Lea counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs touted the project as a safe means to diversify the economy of the oil-dependent region and drive-up local revenue.
They formed the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) which sited the facility, recruited Holtec and aided the company in applying in 2017 for a federal license through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The NRC issued Holtec’s license in May after years of public meetings, comments and analysis of the project.
But in its letter to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a frequent critic of the Holtec project, the coalition urged the lawmaker to seek federal legislation that would block the proposal.
The letter argued temporary storage as the company planned to build, should only exist when a permanent repository was available.
Such a site does not exist in the U.S. after a project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was blocked by lawmakers in that state.
“The cross-country transport, consolidation, and interim storage of America’s entire inventory of spent nuclear fuel should only be considered once a permanent repository is underway and should never occur absent consent from affected communities,” read the coalition’s letter.
That consent was not present in New Mexico or Texas, argued the letter, where a similar facility in Andrews, Texas was licensed by NRC last year but was blocked by a court order.
Both states passed legislation barring high-level nuclear waste storage, amid opposition from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Lujan Grisham called the projects “economic malpractice” for the risks she said they could pose to other industries nearby.
And the U.S. Department of Energy recently started a program to develop regulations for a “consent-based” siting model for nuclear facilities, that would require states to agree to host the facilities.
A bill to put such policy into law was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada, with identical legislation brought to the U.S. Senate by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto also of Nevada.
Neither bill had garnered co-sponsorship by any of New Mexico’s congressional delegation as of Friday.
The coalition’s letter called on Heinrich to fight against any federal bills to allow nuclear waste sites like Holtec’s be developed without consent from host states, and push policy to strengthen such requirements as in Titus’ bill.
“Therefore, we are writing to respectfully request that you remain diligent in ensuring that no such legislation is enacted and humbly ask for your leadership in passing legislation to protect not only the State of New Mexico but also neighboring Texans and the many vulnerable communities along the waste’s transportation routes,” read the letter.
The group argued nuclear waste storage in the region could also endanger the oil and gas industry, a major arm of the local and national economy, along with nearby farming and ranching producers.
“The Permian Basin ranks at the top nationally as our country’s most productive source of food, fuel, and fiber for its overwhelming energy, agriculture, crops, and livestock production,” read the letter. “Its importance to our economy and security cannot be downplayed, and it is no place for high-level nuclear waste.”
Opposition from proposed host states should be given a higher weight than the desires of companies and federal agencies in finding locations for nuclear waste facilities, said Titus in a statement issued upon her bill’s introduction.
“We must codify the protection of their voices into law to protect the health and safety of our communities and guarantee a process that honors the consent of state, local, and tribal leaders,” read the statement.
In announcing the DOE’s $26 million project to develop consent-based siting regulations, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said consent-based siting was crucial to address the nation’s nuclear waste while protecting local communities.
“It is vital that, as DOE works to be good stewards of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, we do right by communities in the siting process and include them in the decision-making at the outset,” Granholm said.
Adrian Heddencan be reached at 575-628-5516,firstname.lastname@example.org or@AdrianHedden on X, formerly known as Twitter.