Between May and September, a single lobbyist for Chevron doled out more than $760,000 in campaign cash to dozens of New Mexico state politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. State Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) calls it a waste of money. “I don’t think they get back anything,” says Muñoz. He and Democratic Speaker of the House Brian Egolf are two of the top three recipients of oil and gas money among state legislators. But, he says, “I don’t think it gets their message heard.”
That’s because he already knows how he and many other legislators will vote.
Just a few weeks after the pandemic hit New Mexico, the price of oil plunged into negative territory for the first time in history. Production screeched to a halt worldwide, workers were laid off, and wells were temporarily plugged while operators hoped to wait out a price war between two of the world’s largest oil suppliers, Russia and Saudi Arabia. More than six months later, the oilfields in New Mexico are starting to show signs of life. Some of the wells that were shut in earlier in the pandemic are now back online, though just 47 well rigs—which drill new wells—are up and running, representing 40 percent of those operating in 2019 before the pandemic hit.
“We’re hearing anecdotally that some producers are choosing to restart some of that production. “We’re still holding fairly steady, with a rig count in the 40s,” Robert McEntyre, director of communications at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said.
A group of local leaders touted New Mexico’s work towards addressing climate change during a recent webinar on public health and climate change. But speakers such as Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, and New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) Sec. Kathyleen Kunkel tip-toed around the state’s recent record oil production and its contribution to climate change. Fossil fuel combustion is the chief driver of carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change. While many states have begun transitioning to renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil and natural gas, New Mexico is the only state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy mandate while also producing record levels of oil.
“For the [Gov. Michelle] Lujan Grisham administration, environmental issues are public health priorities,” Kunkel said in her remarks, adding that DOH is part of the governor’s climate change task force.
To Nathalie Eddy’s eye, Loco Hills has become “a graveyard” of oil and gas development.
Eddy is the Colorado and New Mexico field advocate at the environmental group Earthworks. Eddy works frequently in the Permian Basin, using special imaging cameras to capture methane leaks coming from oil and gas wells sites in the area.
Loco Hills, located north of Carlsbad on the Lovington Highway, is a legacy oilfield whose landscape is now dotted with inactive wells, and a few wells still producing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of those defunct wells are located on state or federal public lands and they aren’t going away anytime soon. The area “offers a sobering glimpse of drilling’s irreversible damage that scars these public lands and makes the land unavailable for any future use for future generations,” Eddy told NM Political Report.
There is concern that other parts of the Permian Basin may suffer a similar fate. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Carlsbad field office was considered the busiest in the country last year, thanks to record levels of oil and gas production in the Permian Basin.
U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat in New Mexico’s highly conservative southern New Mexico district, rebuked a progressive colleague for cheering the recent dramatic drop in oil and gas prices. Torres Small represents a heavily conservative district that includes the state’s portion of the Permian Basin, one of the most oil-rich areas in the world. “A champion for the working class should be a champion for all workers,” Torres Small said on Tuesday, in response to tweets from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez of New York, like Torres Small a freshman Democrat, is a prominent progressive and the most prominent rising star of the left wing of the party. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “You absolutely love to see it,” a Twitter meme, in reply to the unprecedented drop in oil and gas futures on Monday that saw prices drop to negative for the first time in history.
Amid a Permian Basin oil and gas boom, conservation advocates worry the current levels of industry activity occurring on federally-managed lands in southeast New Mexico are unsustainable, damaging to the land, reducing habitat for wildlife and further stressing populations of fauna that are struggling against a changing climate. A 2018 policy change drastically increased the frequency of oil and gas lease sales in the state, propelling the Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees management of BLM land in portions of the Permian Basin, to become one of the busiest BLM field offices in the country. The Carlsbad office is also in the midst of a resource management program (RMP) revision that began in 2010, updating the 1988 RMP that outlines, among other things, where oil and gas leases can be sold. Conservation groups such as the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance have nominated several areas for federal protection against oil and gas development. And the state’s Game and Fish Department has identified a number of important wildlife migration corridors in the Permian Basin for protections from oil and gas activity.
ByAlgernon D'Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News, New Mexico In Depth |
Seated on the floor of First Christian Church on a recent Sunday morning, Pastor Dave Rogers pierces the heart of a debate in Carlsbad as it adapts to a historic oil and natural gas boom. Rogers recounts to three children the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man from a despised group helps a traveler beaten, robbed and left for dead after religious passers-by ignore him. “I wonder what it’s like to be a neighbor to somebody we don’t know and that needs our help,” Rogers asks his young listeners as a dozen or so adults, mostly senior citizens, look on. Welcoming strangers and helping neighbors are values many in the small congregation – and broader community – identify with Carlsbad.
The Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield in 2019, and New Mexico is reaping the financial benefits. The state saw a significant revenue surge this year, resulting in a projected $7.8 billion collected.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association estimates the state produces 900,000 barrels of oil a day. It anticipates the state will surpass 300 million barrels of oil in 2019, the third year in a row for the state for record-setting production. Projections from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) predict the state could see over $900 million in new money in 2020, due in large part of growing oil and gas royalties generated in 2019. Oil and gas now makes up 40 percent of the state’s budget.
The U.S. has oscillated from being the largest economy to participate in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change to becoming one of the world’s strongest voices promoting the continued burning of coal and other fossil fuels. New Mexico has had a front row seat to that change, of course. In 2019, the Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield, and New Mexico has emerged as a top oil-producing state.
Oil and gas expansion across New Mexico and Texas will be a chief driver of future greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to a recent report compiled by 15 global environmental groups that was released ahead of the U.N. climate-focused COP25 conference held in Madrid this year.
“Right now, the Permian Basin is the biggest projected driver of oil and gas expansion — not just in the U.S. but in the world,” said Kelly Trout, senior research analyst at Oil Change International, a research and advocacy group. Trout was a contributor to the report.
“Our data shows that the potential year of peak production for the Permian Basin in 2032,” Trout said. “The Permian Basin itself could produce more oil and natural gas liquids than Saudi Arabia [at that time].”
U.S. outpaces all other countries in planned oil and gas expansion
The U.S. is poised to outpace every other country in the world in new oil and gas development, according to the report.
A bill to establish a permanent 10-mile buffer around Chaco Canyon to protect it from oil and gas extraction activity passed the U.S. House on Wednesday with bipartisan support. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small, would prohibit oil and gas activity on nearly 500 square miles of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held land surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The bill passed 245-174, with all Democrats in the House voting in favor of the legislation, along with 17 Republicans. The legislation would withdraw BLM-held land within the 10-mile buffer around the Chaco Canyon park from future oil and gas development, but would not prevent the Navajo Nation or individuals with allotments in the buffer zone from pursuing energy development.