Birds-eye view of Jal, NM.

State auditor opens special audit on Jal water issues

State Auditor Tim Keller recently designated the City of Jal for a special audit on the city’s water billing issues. The move comes two months after Keller’s office opened a case into an arrangement where the city in the southeastern New Mexico oil patch gave a local ranch a discount on utility water worth $1.2 million over a 25-month period between 2012 and 2014. NM Political Report, in partnership with the Jal Record, first reported on the city’s water deal with the Beckham Ranch in September. Related: State Auditor to investigate Jal water deal

In a Dec. 2 letter to Jal Mayor Cheryl Chance*, Keller writes the special audit will look at Jal’s “compliance with applicable laws, regulations, policies and and procedures with respect to water utility billing practices.”

Jal City Manager Bob Gallagher told NM Political Report that he is “extremely pleased” with the state auditor’s decision for the special audit and said he has been cooperating with Keller’s office on the matter for the past two months.

Oil rig in southeast New Mexico.Margaret Wright

Land Commissioner to pitch expanding drilling to fund early childhood education to ALEC

New Mexico’s Commissioner of Public Lands is slated to speak Friday with a group of conservative-minded state lawmakers in Washington D.C. about his proposal to transfer federal mineral rights on private lands to the state. Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn is also planning to meet with members of Congress in order to urge them to approve the transfer, according to spokeswoman Emily Strickler. In an email to NM Political Report, Strickler said Dunn is promoting his Early Childhood Education Land Grant Act to state lawmakers at an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) policy summit. Related: BLM finalizes rule to limit methane emissions

“The group Commissioner is presenting to at ALEC would not be voting on this legislation, but may be interested in using the legislation as a model for legislation in their states,” Strickler wrote. “Also, Commissioner will be meeting with New Mexico’s congressional delegation while in D.C. to discuss this legislation because it needs congressional approval.”

ALEC members use model legislation to spread laws throughout states, with the most high-profile example perhaps the so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws that are in place in several states.

Oil rig in southeast New Mexico.Margaret Wright

BLM finalizes rule to limit methane emissions

The United States Bureau of Land Management announced this week a final rule aimed at limiting methane flaring at oil and gas wells. The rule, which requires oil and gas producers to limit the amount of methane released into the atmosphere, is set to be enforced gradually. In a press release, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said the rule is also an effort to update regulations to mirror available technology. “Not only will we save more natural gas to power our nation, but we will modernize decades-old standards to keep pace with industry and to ensure a fair return to the American taxpayers for use of a valuable resource that belongs to all of us,” Jewell said. New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has long opposed the BLM rule, citing the difficulty of oil and gas companies getting access to federal land in order to capture the excess methane.

Oil rig in southeast New Mexico.Margaret Wright

Land Commissioner says new oil rule aimed at helping state, not companies

A new rule for oil leases by the New Mexico Land Office is aimed at ensuring companies don’t abandon wells and the state doesn’t lose out on revenues. Contrary to a previous news report—that the state was waiving land rentals for energy companies—the state land office said the new “shut-in” rule gives small oil companies a small amount of leeway in temporarily halting production instead of completely shutting down wells that are not currently economically viable. It does not, Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn said, allow companies to stay on state land rent-free. “The rule requires annual rental payment while the well is temporarily shut-in—but, ultimately, this rule seeks to benefit the long-term interests of the trust and will result in more royalty revenue down the line,” Dunn said in a statement to NM Political Report. New Mexico has long depended on oil and gas revenues to help balance the state’s budget, but recent price drops have created hard times for the state financially.

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BernCo Commission votes to support methane waste, flaring changes

The Bernalillo County Commission passed a resolution supporting the federal government’s push to create stricter rules on methane leaks and emissions. The proposal passed on a 3-1 vote Tuesday night, with all three Democrats on the commission voting for it and Commissioner Wayne Johnson voting against. Commissioner Lonnie Talbert was not present for the vote. The resolution shows the support of the  Bernalillo County Commission for proposed rules from the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency on methane emissions and leaks from oil and gas drilling. Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins sponsored the resolution and said the proposed federal rules would have a positive impact on health for residents of Bernalillo County, plus help slow down the effects of climate change.

Photo Credit: blake.thornberry cc

BernCo resolution would ask for tougher methane requirements

The battle over restricting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is headed to Bernalillo County. It’s in the form of a proposed resolution by Democratic County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, with the support of groups such as New Mexico Voices for Children and Hispanics Enjoy Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO). The resolution is expected to be heard during Tuesday evening’s meeting. While acknowledging that “energy development is critically important to the economy of both Bernalillo County and the State of New Mexico,” the resolution calls for the Bernalillo County Commission to support stronger rules from the federal government on methane flaring and leakage and to charge royalties on “wasted, vented or flared methane gas” released into the atmosphere. “It really seems to us to make no sense to allow these oil companies to basically waste a resource that should belong to the public, that the production of which should benefit the public,” NM Voices for Children Executive Director James Jimenez said in a short interview.

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GOP targets key seat in Rio Rancho in bid to take control of Senate

One of the key districts New Mexico Republicans need to take the state Senate back sits just north of Albuquerque in Rio Rancho, where incumbent Democrat John Sapien faces GOP challenger Diego Espinoza. Sapien, an insurance salesman who is running for his third term, won both the 2008 and 2012 elections on narrow margins—by just 121 votes and 161 votes respectively. Sapien’s latest challenger, Espinoza, has so far outstripped him in fundraising, gathering roughly $153,000 as of press time compared to Sapien’s $126,000. Both speak of job creation as the top priority of their candidacies. But each have different solutions.

Official photo of State Auditor Tim Keller

State Auditor to investigate Jal water deal

The State Auditor’s office is looking at an arrangement where the city of Jal provided a local ranch with a large discount on water, after a report earlier this week. The news comes after NM Political Report and The Jal Record reported on the credits that Beckham Ranch, Inc. received from the city of Jal. “The State Auditor’s Office has opened a case to conduct fact-finding into concerns that have been raised,” Deputy Chief of Staff Justine Freeman said in a statement. The city has been unable to produce a written record of the deal and city councilors don’t remember voting on the deal. Some don’t remember discussing the deal, while others, including the mayor, say the deal was discussed but no official decision was made.

Birds-eye view of Jal, NM.

City gave ranch million-dollar water discount, documents show

This story was reported in partnership with the Jal Record, a weekly newspaper based in southeastern New Mexico. JAL—Like many areas in New Mexico, water is in short supply in this southeastern oil patch town of 2,500 people. In the past few years, city officials have tried to address the matter by limiting water use, including barring businesses from buying city water for industrial use in the summer of 2013. But between 2012 and 2014, the city gave one ranch an unusual perk—a more than $1 million discount on its water bills. On top of this, Jal continued to sell industrial water to Beckham Ranch, Inc. for six months after the ban went into effect.

Oil rig in southeast New Mexico.Margaret Wright

Probe finds multiple wrongdoings by ex-Farmington BLM head

A recently-released report by the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General looked into the actions of Steve Henke from when he was in charge of the Bureau of Land Management office in Farmington. The report says the investigation initially looked into the former Farmington district manager’s move from manager of BLM’s field office to being in charge of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. NMOGA represents the oil and gas industry in the state and lobbies BLM and state authorities on behalf of the industry. The OIG, however, expanded the investigation into other areas, including “inappropriate acceptance of meals and other gifts from oil and gas industry representatives,” “authorization of a commercial shooting range illegally construction on BLM land” and alleged misrepresentations and misuse of BLM resources in a land sale. Greenwire, a trade publication, first obtained and wrote about the report by the Interior Department OIG.