The New Mexico Environment Department and Economic Development Department, a private aerospace firm and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a joint initiative Thursday to use high-altitude, solar-powered airships to conduct advanced air quality monitoring throughout the state.

The five-year project will build a better understanding of air pollution and climate change, and it will help guide policymaking in the state, New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney said during a virtual news conference.

“Until now, atmospheric science was based on a network of ground air quality monitors, with some additional information that we would get from airplanes and satellites. Not anymore,” he said.

Through the partnership, Kenney said, “we will study pollution sources and their impacts on climate and air quality from 65,000 feet above New Mexico.”

He said he was unable to provide an estimate for the project’s total cost or New Mexico’s share.

The aerospace technology could be particularly useful when it comes to monitoring air quality in remote and hard-to-reach areas.

Kenney said New Mexico has more than 60,000 oil and gas wells and only about seven air quality inspectors to monitor them.

New Mexico-based aerospace company Sceye builds and operates the helium-filled airships.

Sceye founder and CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen said in the news conference the airships — known as High Altitude Platform Stations — can remain airborne for months and “provide early detection of wildfires and track greenhouse gas emissions in real time.”

The study is expected to begin next year.

Kenney said New Mexico agencies will work with the EPA in the coming months to determine the equipment and funding needed for the initiative. “We hope there will be minimal cost to New Mexico to achieve the outcome here,” he said.

Economic Development Secretary Alicia J. Keyes said the public-private partnership could help expand the state’s economy.

“Investing in higher-paying jobs is one of the governor’s priorities,” Keyes said at the news conference. “It [the initiative] really hits all of our boxes in diversifying the economy.”

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