A bill to create a renewable energy office in the New Mexico State Land Office passed the state House of Representatives on a 48-19 vote on Friday. HB 95 is sponsored by Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque. The number of renewable energy projects on state lands have increased substantially under State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard. Some people are concerned that once Garcia Richard leaves office, a future commissioner could choose to reduce or end the focus on wind and solar projects. HB 95 would ensure that renewable energy development continues on state trust lands in the future.
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.
When Stephanie Garcia Richard took the office of State Land Commissioner following the 2018 elections, she had the goal of tripling renewable energy development on state lands. “We are very rapidly closing in on that goal two years later,” Garcia Richard told NM Political Report. There were 453 megawatts of renewable energy when she took office. That has more than doubled in the past couple of years and the State Land Office has inked deals for even more future projects. Angie Poss, a spokesperson for the State Land Office, said 466 megawatts have been added since Garcia Richard took office and, with the upcoming projects, the office will definitely get to the goal of tripling renewable energy on state trust land.
The State Land Office announced the cancellation of grazing leases to a company owned by Jeffrey Epstein, the now-deceased disgraced financier who committed suicide before facing trial for sexual misconduct charges. The leases surrounded Zorro Ranch, his 10,000 acre northern New Mexico compound that he owned since 1993. State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said “this land was no doubt used to protect the privacy of Epstein and his co-conspirators, and today we took steps to take back this public land.”
Garcia Richard cited three reasons to cancel the leases of 1,234 acres of state trust land to a company called Cypress Inc.
“First, the Ranch’s obstruction of my access to inspect state trust land. Second, a written misrepresentation by Cypress that does not comply with State Land Office leasing requirements,” she said. “And finally, the Attorney General has concluded that Cypress may have obtained the leases through illegitimate means for purposes other than ranching or agriculture.”
The notice means the cancellation can become effective in 30 days, or on Oct.
On a late March weekend, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard headed out to the Permian Basin, to visit oil wells on state trust lands. These are wells that churn out profits for corporations, build up the state’s general fund from taxes and royalties and send money to schools and hospitals. Looking through a special camera that detects emissions of volatile organic compounds, Garcia Richard also saw that the wells are sending methane and other pollutants into the air. “There are seemingly innocuous pieces of equipment, tanks, pipes, and then you look at it with the FLIR camera and you can see these clouds of emissions,” the commissioner said. “We went to some older operations, some newer operations, some [wells operated] by some smaller companies, some by larger companies.”
Inside the New Mexico State Land Office, current Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn sits at a dark wood desk ringed with a painting of the Rio Grande Gorge, a saddle, and a pair of leather chaps pinned on the wall, homages to a lifetime spent on cattle ranches. But it’s the decor outside that tends to draw more attention: Dunn installed a model pump jack in front of the State Land Office building on Old Santa Fe Trail. Its bobbing head —powered by a solar panel — is a familiar sight in oil country. From that desk, he manages the state’s land trust: 9 million acres of surface land, and 13 million acres of mineral estate. It’s his job to maximize revenue from those acres through leases for businesses, grazing and rights-of-way, royalties from mining potash, coal, salt and caliche, and above all, fossil fuels, which accounts for 92.7 percent of the revenue generated the office.
“It’s going to be a nail-biter,” Garrett VeneKlasen said, early in the night as he and fellow Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard were neck-and-neck in the race for New Mexico State Land Commissioner. And indeed it was, as the two traded the lead throughout the night, with Garcia Richard, a state representative, pulling ahead as the final results from Bernalillo County came in late Tuesday night, giving her a two percentage point lead over VeneKlasen. Despite a last-minute ad campaign, state Sen. George Muñoz finished almost 15 percentage points behind the two front-runners. “I feel very gratified the voters responded to my cause,” Garcia Richard said. “I was outspent, I didn’t have the institutional support my opponents had and I didn’t have the endorsements they had.”
In November’s general election, she will face Republican Pat Lyons, who previously held the office for two terms, from 2003 until 2010. A rancher, Lyons currently represents District 2 on the Public Regulation Commission.
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.
A federal court has thwarted plans by the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend an Obama-era rule tracking and cutting methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. Last month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suspended his agency’s implementation of the rule, which was opposed by the American Petroleum Institute, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. But on Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with six environmental groups and granted an emergency stay of Pruitt’s suspension. In their opinion, the appeals court judges wrote that Pruitt’s suspension of the rule was both “unauthorized” and “unreasonable.” They overturned it, calling it arbitrary, capricious and in excess of the agency’s statutory authority. Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the court decision could have a big effect on New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern part of the state.
New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Aubrey Dunn wants the U.S. Department of the Interior to expedite its review of two national monuments in New Mexico. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the designations previous presidents had made under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Two New Mexico monuments are on that list: Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the southern part of the state. According to Dunn, the Rio Grande del Norte designation landlocked more than 41,000 acres of state trust lands and 3,468 acres of mineral rights. He wrote 12,000 acres are now “unleasable” because “prior lessees aren’t interested in leasing lands within that area.”
He also wrote that 67,547 acres of state trust lands are landlocked within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. In his letter, Dunn asks that Zinke either expedite land exchanges between the federal government and the state or reduce the size of the two monuments.