October 17, 2022

Energy transition at the center of the Public Lands Commissioner race

Still from State Land Office video

Wind turbines on state trust land.

The ongoing energy transition is taking center stage in an often overlooked race on the New Mexico ballot this year.

Environmental advocacy groups say this year’s three-way race for commissioner of public lands will determine if the State Land Office continues down a path of diversification and moving toward renewable energy development or if it returns to the days of “business as usual” and prioritized fossil fuel extraction.

The State Land Office manages state trust lands with the goal of raising money to support public institutions such as schools. These lands are leased out for energy development and grazing as well as other commercial uses.

Demis Foster, the executive director of Conservation Voters of New Mexico, said New Mexico has the most state trust lands of any state in the country, which is one reason why this year’s election is extremely important.

The incumbent State Land Commissioner is Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat and former educator and state legislator. Foster said Garcia Richard has brought a lot of changes to the office. 

She has expanded solar and wind on state trust lands and implemented a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on state lands near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. She has also spearheaded the agency during a push for increased outdoor recreation opportunities in New Mexico and contracted a study to look into orphaned wells and bond funding.

Related: State land commissioner says the office is nearing her goal for renewable energy development

“She really recognizes that our state has such an abundance of renewable sources like solar and wind, which makes New Mexico a really ideal location for renewable energy production,” Miya King-Flaherty, a public lands fellow with the Sierra Club, said. “It also leads to clean energy jobs.”

Garcia Richard faces Republican Jefferson Byrd, a current member of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, and independent write-in candidate Larry Marker, whose website states in bold letters “help us end the war on oil and gas.”

Both Marker and Byrd have experience working in sectors related to extraction of oil and gas as well as ranching. 

Byrd touts his experience, including in regulating electric utilities and serving as New Mexico’s representative on the Southwest Power Pool Regional State Committee, as reasons why he is, as he puts it, the most qualified candidate for public land commissioner. He says that he will work to balance renewable energy and oil and gas development on state lands.

During his time on the PRC, the regulatory agency has overseen electric utilities adopting increasing amounts of renewable energy and the PRC has worked to prepare the state for the transition to cleaner energy.

At the same time, Byrd was one of three PRC commissioners who faced impeachment calls after the regulatory body initially chose not to implement the Energy Transition Act when the state’s largest utility applied to close a coal-fired power plant. The commissioners argued that the PRC had opened a docket inquiring into closure of the power plant prior to the ETA even being introduced in the state Legislature. They further had concerns that the ETA would limit their ability to protect customers.

Related: Dysfunction at the PRC puts New Mexico’s clean energy plan at risk

Later, Byrd joined the other PRC commissioners in approving replacing the coal-fired power plant solely with renewable energy sources and batteries. Following the vote, he told NM Political Report that all of the possible replacement scenarios had challenges and problems that the state would face in the future.

Related: ‘New Mexico is leading the nation’: Renewables set to replace coal-fired San Juan Generating Station

King-Flaherty said she thinks Byrd has been a good PRC commissioner. At the same time, she said that he comes from a more traditional mindset for commissioners of public lands. That, she said, would mean a return to prioritization of oil and gas development, as has been seen in the past with the State Land Office.

“It’s crucial to start thinking of different ways to start utilizing our lands and waters that are going to be crucial for how we are going to deal with climate change,” she said.

Foster also spoke about the importance of diversifying revenue streams.

“You don’t want to just be tied to a finite industry,” she said.

Foster said she doesn’t believe that Byrd would continue Garcia Richard’s focus on expanding renewable energy resources.

Meanwhile, Marker claims on his website that fossil fuels are a reliable source of energy that make the environment cleaner, protect against climate-related disasters and improve the standards of living. This is despite warnings from top scientists that the major cuts are needed in fossil fuel consumption to prevent catastrophic levels of warming. Climate change has also been linked to increased risks of wildfire, drought and extreme weather.

King-Flaherty said that as New Mexico faces extreme drought connected to climate change, it is important that the commissioner of public lands have a vision that includes sustainability and renewable energy.

She also said it is important that the person who oversees management of state trust lands understands the stewardship role of the office, especially in relation to cultural resources. She highlighted Garcia Richard’s creation of a tribal working group and a cultural resources office. The cultural resources office is tasked with ensuring oil and gas development, new roads and other infrastructure does not overlap with irreplaceable cultural heritage.

Whoever is elected will also have a voice in the state’s 30 by 30 Advisory Committee, which was created through a governor’s executive order that called for conserving 30 percent of land by 2030 with an additional 20 percent of lands set aside as climate stabilization areas. While the definition of conserved lands has not yet been set, Byrd vocally opposes the 30×30 initiative and calls it a land grab.

“State trust lands are an absolute treasure for our state,” Foster said. “Not only in the generation of revenue and the potential revenue that we can generate through clean energy sources like wind and solar, but they’re also incredibly important for our air, water and our wildlife habitat.”

She said New Mexico has the opportunity to use the state trust lands for more than just oil and gas development.