The Carlsbad region was poised to send $3 billion to New Mexico coffers, thanks to one of the biggest oil booms in history. Then came COVID.

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.

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 Office cancels grazing lease to company owned by Epstein

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.

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.

Tracking the methane boom

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.”

Bipartisan vote spikes bill to raise oil and gas royalties

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.

Dems dominate statewide races

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.

Poll shows Dems lead in most statewide races

A recent poll shows Democrats are poised to clinch most statewide races, while a congressional race remains too close to call and one expensive state race leans towards Republicans. A poll by Research and Polling, Inc. for the Albuquerque Journal shows Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham leads Republican Steve Pearce 53 percent to 43 percent in the race for governor. The ten point lead is an increase from the 7 percent race found in a September poll. The same poll found incumbent U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, leading in the three-way race against former Gov. Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, and contractor Mick Rich, a Republican. Heinrich is 20 points ahead of Rich and almost 40 ahead of Johnson.

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.”

Patrick Lyons fundraising for Land Commissioner campaign raises legal and ethical questions

A campaign fundraising letter that public land commissioner candidate Patrick Lyons sent ranchers who lease land from the State Land Office is raising legal and ethical questions a month before voters decide whether to return him to the job he held for eight years. Should Lyons win the seat this November, he will be in charge of renegotiating leases with companies seeking to renew those agreements. About 30 percent of the money Lyons has raised so far in his run has come from lessees, according to a review of campaign finance records. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. A copy of the letter was shared with New Mexico In Depth and is addressed “dear agricultural lessee.” It goes on to describe Lyons’ record as a rancher and farmer, and as previous land commissioner.