The fossil fuel industry and its future are at the heart of a three-way match to decide who will manage state lands, which generate billions of dollars for New Mexico, largely through oil and gas drilling.
State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat seeking reelection, faces two opponents who think their private-sector experience makes them better qualified for the job than she is.
State Public Regulation Commissioner Jefferson Byrd, a Republican, has worked as an environmental engineer in the fossil fuel industry and has been a rancher for decades. Larry Marker, who is running as an independent, is a former oil and gas operator who also has a background in ranching, farming and manufacturing.
Garcia Richard said one obvious fact sets her apart: She’s the only person in the race with a track record for effectively overseeing the state’s 9 million acres and 13 million subsurface acres, both in producing revenue and protecting resources.
Under her watch, the lands have generated $5.3 billion in the past four years, almost all from oil and gas, and now she’s looking to expand and diversify the revenue sources, including through renewable energy, she said.
“We’ve maximized every existing revenue stream,” Garcia Richard said. “Should voters return me to the office, there are so many more opportunities for diversification, economic growth, job creation. And I want to continue those efforts.”
Byrd said Garcia Richard’s office is less cooperative with industries — including fossil fuel, the state’s cash cow — than previous land commissioners were.
Oil operators, ranchers and telecommunication companies complaining about obtaining leases has become cumbersome with lengthy delays, and that State Land Office staff members often are unresponsive when they try to contact them, Byrd said.
Oil companies are unhappy about restrictions on new exploration and foresee pulling out of New Mexico in 10 years if the system doesn’t change, he added.
“She keeps touting how much money she has brought in, but that’s been because of the actions of the previous administration,” Byrd said, noting reduced exploration and drilling will lead to decreasing revenue.
Byrd said he would strive to be accessible, making his phone number available.
“[It] doesn’t always get them the answer they want, but it gets a quicker answer when commissioners themselves get involved,” he said.
Marker said he also has heard complaints about oil and gas leasing, not only with operators struggling to obtain leases but also with the State Land Office canceling them.
“The number of leases that have been canceled in the last couple of years is troubling,” he said.
Marker said he has read news reports in which Garcia Richard talked about imposing a moratorium on new oil and gas activity in her jurisdiction.
He blamed the overall trend on the State Land Office moving toward “radical environmentalism.” The agency’s mission is to generate revenue on state lands, not act as a regulator, he said.
“My business experience puts me in a position to make sure the State Land Office does what it’s supposed to do — stay in the middle of the road, be nonpartisan,” Marker said.
Garcia Richard said since taking office she has reduced the time for obtaining a lease to 60 days from 90 days.
As for cancellations, if a company’s lease has expired and it is unwilling to comply with statutes, such as cleaning up a scrapped well, the office will take back the lease so it can go to someone in good standing, she said. “The reality is there is limited land left to lease and a lot of companies that want to lease it.”
The only state land where drilling is curtailed is in the Chaco Canyon area, she said. She added she would consider a moratorium on new leases to prod the Legislature into raising the rates of royalties the state receives from fossil fuel operations.
Under state statutes, Garcia Richard said, she has a dual mission to produce revenue and protect the environment. “Someone could bring a court action against me should I not be doing my job in watching out for the resource,” she said.
She has compelled more operators to clean up abandoned oil wells by enforcing lease guidelines her predecessors did not use, she said, adding she pushed for regulations banning the use of fresh water for fracking when operators have “produced water” available to recycle.
She appreciates that oil and gas account for more than 95 percent of state land revenues, Garcia Richard said, but is exploring other ways to generate money.
The giant wind farm Pattern Energy is developing in the Corona area, in part on state land, is one example, she said. It is expected to become one of the largest wind energy projects in the world.
State lands also will be part of the defunct Escalante coal plant’s redevelopment in Prewitt, she said.
In all, renewable energy tripled on state lands while she was commissioner, Garcia Richard said, adding she will keep working to increase it significantly if reelected.
Byrd and Marker agreed environmental stewardship is part of managing the lands and that renewable energy will play an increasing role in generating revenue.
“It’s got to be done in an environmentally friendly manner,” Byrd said.
As a member of the Public Regulation Commission, Byrd said he’s aware of how wind and solar production is on the rise in New Mexico and how to phase it responsibly.
He said his time working as an environmental engineer for oil companies would help him hold operators accountable in a tough but fair way. He’ll work with those who make an honest mistake with the aim of fixing the problems and moving on, he said. But he’ll crack down on willful violators who mislead inspectors.
“If you’re trying to be crooked, we’ll hammer you straight,” Byrd said. “I’ll be able to tell the difference.”
Marker said he would relegate environmental oversight to agencies such as the Oil Conservation Division and the Environment Department so he could focus on bolstering revenue.
Marker and Byrd said they think state sites should be surveyed for untapped raw materials.
Marker said helium, which often is intermingled with natural gas deposits, sells for a high price, making it potentially lucrative.
The state still has huge uranium reserves that were never mined, he said. He would like to revive the industry but charge operators a fee to cover cleaning up the legacy waste left behind by previous mining outfits.
Garcia Richard and Marker said bonding reform is needed, although for different reasons.
Marker said the current system doesn’t sufficiently cover the potential cleanup costs of orphan wells if an operator becomes insolvent, leaving the state responsible.
He suggests creating a “bond bank” that an operator pays into with a portion of the revenue generated by the well.
Some infrastructure on state land is not bonded, Garcia Richard said, and some is under-bonded.
An experienced leader should be at the helm of an agency that provides so much funding for state programs, she said.
“Folks rarely talk about where the money comes from to pay for these programs that are very popular,” she said. “But that money does come from the State Land Office.”