Oil and gas, environmentalists in rare agreement over State Land Office’s emergency rule on shut down wells

Representatives from both oil and gas producers and environmental groups found themselves agreeing on the State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard’s emergency rulemaking for oil and gas production on state land during an online tele-hearing. 

The State Land Office announced earlier in April that it would begin an emergency rulemaking process to allow oil lessees to temporarily stop oil production without penalty for at least thirty days, in hopes of restarting production when the price of oil has recovered some. During the online tele-hearing, oil and gas representatives praised Garcia Richard and the State Land Office for its decision. 

John Smitherman, senior regulatory advisor at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), described the rule as “valuable and practical relief.” Smitherman said the current oil price crisis, spurred by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and exacerbated by a steep drop in demand for oil and gas products amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to the “worst business environment” he’s ever seen. 

“I’ve personally been in this business for over forty years, and have never seen the challenges we face today. This industry, just like many others, is making sacrifices right now for the good of the community, while incurring significant financial losses as a result of unprecedented reductions in demand for our products,” Smitherman said. “The interests of the oil and gas industry and the State Land Office are aligned when it comes to this.”

RELATED: Groups worry about oil and gas emissions as state regulators scale back some enforcement operations during outbreak

Environmental group representatives agreed that the emergency rule was a good idea. 

“It’s not often that environmental groups get to say that we agree with industry in commending the Land Commissioner in moving forward with this rule,” said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at WildEarth Guardians. 

But that’s where consensus between the two groups stopped. 

Smitherman, who said NMOGA’s members operate approximately 95 percent of oil and gas production in the state, and account for greater than 90 percent of all state land office revenue, said he anticipates the situation “will right itself” and “business will return to normal,” though the recovery could be slow. 

Sobel disagreed in her comments. 

“It’s shameful that industry officials are here advocating for yet another bailout to frack forever, in the midst of a public health crisis. We know the oil and gas industry is collapsing as we speak.

State Land Commissioner ‘recommits’ to protecting wildlife

The State Land Office will expand efforts to include wildlife protections in future infrastructure projects. The office made a series of announcements at the recent Upper Rio Grande Wildlife Corridors Summit related to conservation in future State Land Office projects. “I’m here to recommit not only myself, but the state land office, to being a partner in ensuring that wildlife corridors, wildlife crossings, are part of all of our infrastructure plans, our land management plans, our animal management plans,” State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said at the summit. Howard Gross, assistant commissioner for surface resources at the State Land Office, said during a panel discussion at the summit that the agency’s mission is to optimize revenue generated from state trust lands, but the office also has a responsibility to protect “long-term health of those lands for future generations.”

“You might recognize a dichotomy in that mission between revenue generation and conservation. But I prefer to look at it as a yin and yang,” Gross said.

It’s not the Green New Deal: It’s the Red Deal… and it’s in NM

Activist Cheyenne Antonio lists the toxic legacies left by resource extraction and industry on Navajo lands: Superfund sites, coal mines, uranium contamination. But fracking, she says, “is a beast times ten that we cannot contain.”

With over 40,000 oil and gas wells spread throughout the San Juan Basin, many Navajo communities are on the frontlines of New Mexico’s oil and gas boom. Antonio, 25, has seen the impacts in her home Torreon, a small Navajo community surrounded by oil and gas development in northwest New Mexico. “Our aquifer right now is under threat from oil and gas industries,” she says. And she’s concerned about a rise in cancer diagnoses in her family.

Environmentalists, oil producers eye NM land commissioner race

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The surge of oil and gas drilling in New Mexico in the past 18 months also has led to a surge of influence spending in the race for the next Commissioner of Public Lands. Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard, Republican Pat Lyons and Libertarian Michael Lucero all want the job, but Chevron Corp. has poured $2 million into the race to support Lyons, primarily through television ads. Lilliana Castillo, communications director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the state deserves a commissioner who will hold oil and gas companies accountable and protect New Mexico’s air, land and water. “In New Mexico, in particular, we have more acres of state trust land than any other state in the country,” she said, “so that makes the commissioner of public lands the most powerful land manager in the West.”

Powell dropping out of State Land Office race

Ray Powell announced today that he is leaving the race for New Mexico State Land Commissioner due to health issues. The Democrat, who previously served in that position from 1993-2002 and 2011-2014, said he made the difficult decision after being diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis, an autoimmune disease. He explained that after complications from dental work he had a hard time speaking, and knew he should see a doctor. Unable to get an appointment with a neurologist within the next few months, he went to the emergency room instead. “You just can’t run a statewide campaign, or I can’t, with this condition,” Powell told NM Political Report.

Land swap receives bipartisan support

The New Mexico State Land Office and the U.S. Department of the Interior are working out the details on a land trade involving more than 120,000 acres in the state, including some lands within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and the Sabinoso Wilderness. State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn announced this week that the federal government approved an agreement to transfer 43,000 acres of state-owned lands and mineral leases within the monument and the wilderness to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In return, New Mexico will gain about 78,000 acres in 13 counties from the BLM. Of the state trust lands “locked” within the national monument, Dunn said 25 percent of those aren’t currently leased for grazing. That means New Mexico isn’t earning all the income it could, he said, adding that “because of the way it’s checkerboarded with BLM, it’s hard to develop other things, like gravel or any other uses.”

The State Land Office administers nine million acres of surface lands and 13 million acres of subsurface mineral rights.