Pro-oil candidates struggled to take office in New Mexico in the 2022 election, as Democrats espousing environmental policy targeting reductions of pollution largely won their respective elections at state and federal levels.
Conservation and environment issues played a big role in the state’s elections last year, according to a study published by the Center for Western Priorities, giving candidates a “competitive edge” in close and hotly contested races.
The study published in January looked at several western states, including New Mexico, citing elections for US Congress and state officials heavily influence, the report read, by conservation-related topics.
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The Center cited a poll it conducted of 2,011 likely voters in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.
Thirty-seven percent of those polled registered as Democrats, with 30 percent Republicans and 33 percent independent.
In New Mexico, 89 percent of voters said conservation issues were important, and 79 percent said they would directly influence who they voted for, the report read.
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About 60 percent of New Mexico voters polled by the Center said political leaders should do more to regulate oil and gas operations on public land.
That’s especially important in New Mexico, where about half of the state’s fossil fuel operations are on federal public land – an industry that makes up about a third of the state’s annual budget.
This year, oil and gas operations were largely credited for generating an about 3.5 billion budget surplus for lawmakers to consider for spending priorities in the ongoing 2023 Legislative Session from Jan. 17 to March 18.
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But voters polled by the Center also largely supported a transition to energy less pollutive than oil and gas like renewable sectors wind and solar.
Of those polled, the Center reported 73 percent said elected officials to do more to support renewable energy in the state.
Other environmental issues like water and climate change also influenced the election cycle, read the report.
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“Like many states out West, water played a large role in New Mexico’s 2022 midterms,” the report read. “Climate change and renewable energy were also hot topics in the state with each winner voicing their support for solar or wind energy during their campaigns.”
There was also support for conserving culturally significant lands, the report read, with 81 percent of New Mexicans polled supporting a proposal to preserve Caja del Rio, a plateau area of about 84,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest.
These values translated to the ballot box for three elections, the report read, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was reelected over Republican Mark Ronchetti, US Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-NM) was chosen over incumbent Yvette Herrell, and US Teresa Leger Fernandez rewon her seat over Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson.
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Lujan Grisham spoke of environmental issues and tougher regulations on the oil and gas industry throughout her initial 2018 campaign, and since taking office the year after.
Her administration recently enacted controls on air pollution emissions in New Mexico’s oilfields at both the New Mexico Environment Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, targeting the release of gases like methane and volatile organic compounds.
Lujan Grisham also supported legislation to increase the state’s renewable energy portfolio and committed the state to 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045, a goal she said she hoped to see legislatively codified in this year’s lawmaking session.
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By contrast, Ronchetti vowed to increase oil and gas development in New Mexico and questioned the role of man-made pollution in climate change.
The incumbent defeated her GOP challenger in a competitive race with 52 percent of the vote, compared with Ronchetti’s 46 percent.
“Throughout the campaign, Lujan Grisham emphasized the conservation work she completed during her first term as governor,” the report read. “At the end of the day, New Mexicans voted to keep Lujan Grisham in office so that she could continue to lead a strong fight against climate change.”
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Few races ended in as narrow a margin as the election to represent New Mexico’s Second Congressional District, which pitted Vasquez against Herrell who was looking to earn a second term in Congress.
The district covers most of southern New Mexico, including the oil and gas fields of the southeast Permian Basin region.
Herrell in her first term showed unwavering support for oil and gas, her district’s leading industry, introducing bills in the US House aimed at curtailing the authority of the federal to block oil and gas leases after President Joe Biden held new leases after taking office in 2021 .
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She had strong support from the southeast during her term and on the campaign trail, but Vasquez rallied support from the more left-leaning and populated southwest New Mexico region where he previously served as a Las Cruces city councilor, calling for harsher regulations on oil and gas and policy and for the state to boost investment in renewables.
Vasquez was declared the winner days after the election with 50.3 percent of the vote compared with 49.7 percent.
“Ultimately, Vasquez’s vocal support for outdoor issues and New Mexicans’ way of life helped him secure victory and oust Herrell from her seat,” the report read.
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Leger Fernandez took a commanding victory over Martinez Johnson for similar reasons, the report read, with 58 percent of the vote compared to her challenger’s 42 percent.
“As climate and outdoor issues converge and the West continues to be affected by extreme weather events and severe wildfires and drought, voters will be looking for campaign messages to be translated into meaningful action,” read the report.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities, said the election results showed conservation and environmental issues were increasingly important to voters in the West, and called on Biden to use executive action to respond to such demands from the amid division in Congress.
“Looking ahead, the election outcomes serve as clear guidance for President Biden and for members of Congress as they set their respective agendas for the next two years,” Rokala said.
“With dysfunction all but certain to paralyze Congress, the president can use the next two years to build a solid conservation legacy using executive action, which remains overwhelmingly popular with the public.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.