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.
A new poll conducted by Research & Polling for the Albuquerque Journal found that incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham leads her closest opponent by 7 points in the upcoming general election. The same poll found that Democrats have larger leads in the other statewide races this fall. The poll found that Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has the support of 47 percent of likely voters, while Republican Mark Ronchetti has the support of 40 percent and Libertarian Karen Bedonie has the support of 5 percent. Another 8 percent were undecided. The Journal said that female voters and Hispanic voters are driving Lujan Grisham’s lead in her attempt for reelection.
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.
Byachel Mabe and Ed Williams, Searchlight New Mexico |
On a Thursday in late May, Michael Trujillo sat in the slightly softened evening light and watched his three children play in the water at Lake Carlsbad Beach Park, an unexpected patch of blue in the Chihuahuan desert. With his pit bull puppy at his feet, Trujillo passed slices of pizza from a stack of three Little Caesars boxes to two men in camp chairs. All three are oilfield workers, Carlsbad natives and, unlike thousands of others in the industry, all are still employed. But that hasn’t relieved their anger at the New Mexico governor and her coronavirus shutdown orders. “She needs to open the place up and let us do what we need to do,” the 36-year-old Trujillo said.
Like a lot of people in town, Trujillo wishes Carlsbad was in Texas.
This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. In that state, just 40 miles to the south, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t order a COVID-19 lockdown until April 2 and allowed businesses to start reopening by May 1.
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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
A handful of Democrats joined with Republicans at the Legislature on Friday to quash a bill that would have allowed the state to charge higher royalty rates on some oil and gas production. The first committee hearing for House Bill 398 turned into a showdown between New Mexico’s influential oil industry and a newly elected Democratic land commissioner who came to office pledging to collect a greater share of revenue from oil produced on the millions of acres her office controls. Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard argued that raising royalty rates is strictly good business for a state rich in oil and gas but that has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country. But the oil and gas industry countered that it already generates a large share of the funds for New Mexico’s government through taxes and royalties. Raising royalty rates, representatives from the industry argued, would drive away business and ultimately hurt the state.
Democrats swept statewide races on Election Day, and will control not just the governor’s office and all of the executive agencies, but also independent state agencies that oversee everything from state funds to state lands. Democratic incumbent Tim Eichenberg easily won the race for State Treasurer over Republican Arthur Castillo and Democrat Brian Colón defeated Republican Wayne Johnson for State Auditor. In the three-way race for Attorney General, Democratic incumbent Hector Balderas beat Republican Michael Hendricks and Libertarian Blair Dunn. And another Democratic incumbent, Maggie Toulouse Oliver defeated Republican Gavin Clarkson and Libertarian Ginger Grider to hold on to the Secretary of State seat. The closest statewide race on Election Day was for State Land Commissioner.