Back to the well

by Lindsay Fendt, Searchlight New Mexico | May 20, 2021
8 min read
An oil worker hooks up a hose from a tanker truck to pump produced water from a fracking well into a treatment facility, near Malaga, New Mexico. Photograph by Don J. Usner, Searchlight New Mexico

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been made available to the Sun by our content-sharing partner, Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.

On March 15, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a letter to President Joe Biden, praising his commitment to climate action and touting New Mexico’s leadership in the area. She then asked if oil and gas leasing in the state could continue in spite of a federal moratorium. 

New Mexico, she said, was already contributing to stopping climate change—and it needed the revenues from oil and gas too much to slow drilling. As though to reinforce her point, the state legislative session concluded the following week without taking any steps to curb oil and gas emissions.

“It was kind of like a final cherry on top,” said Castille Aguilar, a campaign organizer for Youth United for Climate Crisis Action, a youth-led climate action group. “The idea that we can be leaders on climate change while continuing to give the industry free rein is just a lie, a huge lie.”

For activists like Aguilar, this spring was emblematic of the Lujan Grisham administration’s hands-off approach to climate policy. Democratic state leaders receive less campaign support from the industry than their Republican counterparts, but they still nix policies that could impede the immediate flow of oil (and dollars) in the state. Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-majority legislature talk about energy transition as something to come in the distant future, while tapping industry revenues to fund investments in education and other social policies.

Their hesitancy has opened a door for the industry to further cement its influence in the state. In fact, New Mexico has never leaned as heavily on industry dollars as it does today. In April, monthly oil and gas royalties from state lands hit an all-time high at $110 million, and in 2020, oil and gas funds made up more than a third of the state’s general fund.

New Mexico runs on oil graphic

When Democrats assumed control of both the legislature and the governor’s mansion in 2019, environmental groups had high hopes for climate action. Over the previous eight years, former Governor Susana Martinez had gutted funding for environmental agencies and deregulated the oil and gas industry. Lujan Grisham swept into office full of promises of a greener future.

She advised state agencies to prioritize climate change, and she formed a task force to monitor progress towards climate goals. That same year, the legislature passed the Energy Transition Act, which requires New Mexico to become completely carbon neutral by 2045. 

However, legislation and regulations that would have immediately curtailed the oil and gas industry fizzled. Bills that would have raised oil and gas royalty rates and paused new fracking permits never made it out of committee. The state environment department put out draft rules designed to curb methane releases from oil wells, but left gaping loopholes that would have allowed the vast majority of the state’s oil wells to continue polluting unchecked. After months of intense pressure from environmental groups, the state finally changed course, closing most of them.

“The governor and Democratic leadership can’t have their cake and eat it too,” Aguilar said. “They can’t claim to be climate champions while increasing oil and gas extraction in our state.”

Since then, no legislation that would stem oil and gas production has reached the governor’s desk, while droves of bills to spend the tax revenue from that industry have. 

“The governor is proud to have successfully gotten so many of her legislative priorities over the finish line in the recent legislative session, as well as in previous sessions,” Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said in a statement. Lujan Grisham did not respond to requests for an interview.

Over the years, the state’s budget has become increasingly reliant on oil and gas funds. In the 2020 fiscal year, that share was about $2.6 billion—just over a third of the state’s general fund. Since 2006, the state has used oil and gas revenue for at least 28 percent of its budget and sometimes as much as 37 percent. 

Industry leaders have made their growing influence clear.

“The future and the opportunities that New Mexico has is directly tied to the success of the oil and gas industry,” said Robert McEntyre, the communications director for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “That’s something that policymakers on both sides of the aisle have long recognized.”

New Mexico’s dependence on natural resources has been a feature of the tax structure since statehood in 1912. As decades passed, the resources being pulled from New Mexican earth changed—coal, then uranium, then natural gas—but the economic model never did. 

The latest oil boom overlapped with years of steep tax cuts, resulting in a state budget with natural resources as its primary source rather than a piece of the pie. For nearly two decades, state government has focused on slashing taxes. Martinez, Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, still touts that she made 61 cuts to state taxes and fees.

But this tax structure is not set in stone.

“We have oil and gas, and so we have chosen to provide tax cuts in other areas,” said Bill Jordan, the government relations officer at New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group. “Other states have figured out how to pay the bills . . . and they do it without oil and gas.”

To do this, some officials in state government have begun pushing to find other sources of revenue.

“We want to have a transition plan,” said Stephanie Garcia Richard, public lands commissioner and head of the office that oversees state land use. “We want to transition and not just leave New Mexico in a lurch.”

Garcia Richard’s office has begun leasing land to renewable energy companies. The office is also looking at recreation, manufacturing and research as potential income sources in preparation for the day that New Mexico’s oil wells inevitably shut off. Still, efforts to end New Mexico’s oil and gas dependence remain in their infancy.

That may be in part due to oil and gas’s influence in state and local elections. Industry money was the largest source of state campaign contributions in 2020, according to an analysis from New Mexico Ethics Watch.

The industry’s contributions to candidates span the entire state, both political parties and almost every level of government. More than half of the oil and gas contributions between 2017 and 2020 came from individuals or entities outside New Mexico. Chevron, based in California, was the single largest contributor to candidates from New Mexico in both state and federal elections. Oklahoma-based Devon Energy and Texas-based Occidental Petroleum and Concho Resources also cracked the top five contributors. 

Between 2017 and 2020, 225 candidates in New Mexico accepted direct contributions from the oil and gas industry. Of the candidates who won their elections, six — Phelps Anderson, James Strickler, Cathrynn Brown Novich, Candy Ezzell, Joshua Hernandez and Rachel Black, all Republicans — ran campaigns funded more than 50 percent by oil and gas, and 32 others had campaigns financed more than 20 percent by the industry. 

While more Republicans took money from industry-linked donors, high-ranking Democrats also drew in large contributions. Lujan Grisham received $233,626, far less than her Republican opponent Steve Pearce, who received more than $800,000 in contributions from oil and gas. Brian Egolf, Democratic speaker of the state House, brought in $87,150, and Joseph Cervantes, Democratic chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, took $46,682 from the oil and gas industry, accounting for more than 20 percent of his total campaign contributions.

It’s difficult to trace campaign contributions or meals provided by lobbyists directly to votes and policy, but the oil and gas industry leaders have made no secret of their efforts to grab a seat at the table in government. Democratic state leaders aren’t turning them away. 

Just days before Lujan Grisham made her public appeal to Biden for a moratorium exemption, her staff privately asserted the administration’s strong link to the industry in an email to an Eddy County official obtained by the corporate watchdog group Documented and published by HuffPost.

“We have been communicating frequently with the large operators and the trade associations,” wrote Caroline Buerkle, a top Lujan Grisham staffer. “They have all been appreciative of her efforts.”

Graphics by Joe Rull, Searchlight New Mexico

author

Lindsay Fendt got her start covering the environment as a reporter for The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica. She covered human rights, immigration and the environment throughout Latin America before moving to Colorado in 2017 for the Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. Before joining Searchlight, Lindsay worked as a freelancer and is finishing a book about the global rise of murders of environmentalists.

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“Riverwalk” Presentation/Input Session

Truth or Consequence's riverfront

Thursday, June 24, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
City Commission Chambers
405 W. Third Street, Truth or Consequences

This is the first opportunity for the public to be briefed and comment on on the “Riverwalk” Economic Feasibility Study, commissioned two summers ago from Wilson & Company, civil engineers, by the City of Truth or Consequences. Not to be confused with the community-led “Turtleback Trails” planning effort, which is focused exclusively on improving recreational access and amenities along the riverfront, the Riverwalk study aims to identify possible opportunities for commercial real estate development at Rotary Park, Ralph Edwards Park and a proposed “recreational hub” at the existing Highway 51 tube and paddle launch.

To prepare to provide thoughtful comment, you may view a first draft of a “concept map” of the three proposed development zones, obtained by the Sun via an Inspection of Public Records Act request, and learn more about both the Wilson & Company study and the Turtleback Trails project in the Sun’s indepth report on both planning efforts, “Healthier and Wealthier: The “Turtleback Trails” Vision of Green Riverfront Development.

 

 

Free T’ai Ch’i Chih classes in June

t'ai ch'i graphic

Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. sharp
Park next to municipal pool, Truth or Consequences

T’ai Ch’i Chih is a gentle, meditative movement. Classes of 35 to 40 minutes will improve body balance and quiet the mind. Each session will cover the opening moves, plus six to eight moves of the method (for 20 to 21 moves in total).

Volunteer class leader Carol Borsello has Medical Qigong Level II certification and 25 years of natural healing studies, including massage. Although she is not certified to teach TCC, she is eager to share her healthy hobby with others.

“Come try it out,” Borsello says. “Reinforce good balance and raise your energy level a notch or two!”

Tondo Rotondo: The Circle Show

Nolan Winkler's painting "World Without End, Amen"

June 12–August 15
Rio Bravo Fine Art Gallery, 110 N. Broadway
Truth or Consequences

Tondo (plural “tondi” or “tondos”) is a Renaissance term for a circular work of art. This exhibition features artists represented by Rio Bravo Fine Art, in conjunction with other guest artists from New Mexico and Puerto Rico, all of whom have created a variety of imaginative art using the circle as their starting point. There are paintings on circular canvases, sculptures that take the circle into the three-dimensional realm and photographs with a circular perspective. Illustrated here is Nolan Winkler’s “World Without End, Amen,” diameter 20 inches, one of the paintings in the exhibit.

The exhibition’s opening reception will take place on June 12, during Second Saturday Art Hop, from 6 to 9 p.m. Regular viewing hours are Wednesday through Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m.

 

 

HAVE YOU SEEN?

Foundation for Open Government determines T or C's fees to deliver requested electronic documents not allowed under state law

Truth or Consequences has recently begun to charge a fee of 25 cents per page to deliver electronic records requested under the Inspection of Public Records Act. FOG responded to a citizen request to determine the fee’s validity.

Reader Ron Fenn of Truth or Consequences commented: Thank you for informing on this important “right of the people” to know how our government is acting and spending our money.  Mr. Swingle needs to look at cutting costs (personnel) not penalizing residents to reduce the decades old budget deficits.

T or C still mum about problems with city’s water wells, despite only two of eight working properly

A legal ad in the Sierra County Sentinel’s May 21 edition was the first public notice and acknowledgment that two more wells in the city’s eight-well field are in trouble. Four others are offline, raising questions about the city’s water delivery capacity and the water department’s transparency about the health of the well field.

Reader William West of Truth or Consequences commented: If Wells 6 and 7 are leaking “liquid” or water with oil and metal filings, it seems possible, if not likely, we are drinking the same. If a property with a well is sold, the condition of the well water is part of the seller’s disclosure to the buyer. If T or C water is suspect, either because recent consumer confidence reports were not made public or there are capacity or quality problems with the water the city provides, should these concerns be a part of all property disclosures for sales in the city going forward?

It seems to me that fixing basic needs such as clean water, reliable electrical supply, effective stormwater handling and a transparent and aware city council should come before any consideration of “putting lipstick on a pig”-type projects such as the “Riverwalk.”

 

Wildlife trail or commercial development for Rotary Park?

Please, let us come together to prevent one more desecration. Please let us create, instead, a preserve for wildlife with access for people to the Rio Grande that will stand into the future to preserve the precious, irreplaceable quality of life that we are able to enjoy here.

Reader Patty Kearney of Truth or Consequences commented: Residing in the neighborhood between downtown and Rotary Park, I would not like to see commercial development at Rotary Park. There would be traffic in our residential streets. And the run-off from pavement and/or construction into the river seems environmentally unsound. I have no idea what sort of commercial development is proposed, but I can’t imagine it getting past an environmental impact study—which there ought to be, of course, for anything that goes in that location. I agree with Dr. Spruce. Wetlands restoration and a hiking trail. Investment in projects that make this town more its true self, not something it isn’t, will help us thrive

1 Comment on “Back to the well”

  1. Until we get rid of Citizens United, which has nothing whatsoever to do with citizens and everything to do with corporations, AND get some serious publicly financed election systems we will be under the thumbs of both corporations and the wealthy (often the same people). Unless you are either independently wealthy or bought by corporate interests, you cannot afford to run for office—even in-state and, often, in local elections. It would also help if we educated our children to be critical thinkers.

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