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.
Continue reading “One minute you’re losing your faith, the next you’re kicking somebody’s butt.”