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Energy Issues at Stake in New Mexico Land Commission Election

Unlike energy issues that will appear in the form of ballot initiatives on Tuesday in three western states, voters in New Mexico will cast their energy vote in their choice for state land commissioner, an arcane position with considerable authority.
November 4, 2018, 7am PST | Irvin Dawid
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In Washington, a carbon fee is on the ballot; in Arizona and Nevadainitiatives on renewable portfolio standards, and in Colorado, a familiar issue, an oil and gas drilling initiative.

By contrast, there are no energy initiatives on the New Mexico state ballot on election day. Instead, matters of energy production will be contested by election of a New Mexico Public Lands Commissioner.

"The race for the state's next land commissioner, a position that oversees an area larger than 9 U.S. states, is viewed as crucial to determining the state's energy future," reports Nathan Rott for NPR. "And it could have an even wider impact on the region's economy and the global climate."

As head of the State Land Office, the commissioner manages 9 million acres of state trust lands, approving developments like oil and gas drilling, ranching and renewable energy projects.

"The land commissioner can sell the land, lease the land or trade the land without anybody else's approval, which is unlike any other constitutional office I've heard of," says Ray Powell, who served in the position longer than anyone else in state history.

That autonomy, he says, makes the position attractive to interest groups and industry, particularly oil and gas.

Oil and gas drilling is a booming business in New Mexico, thanks to productive reservoirs in the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico, now the third largest oil producer after Texas and North Dakota.

Longtime political analysts and pollsters say the spending in this year's land commission race is unprecedented.

Chevron has put $2 million into a political action committee that's supporting Patrick Lyons, a Republican, who served as land commissioner from 2003 to 2010.

The League of Conservation Voters, a national conservation group, and local environmental organizations are putting their support behind Stephanie Garica Richard, a Democratic state legislator who has promised to hold oil and gas accountable.

And there's a third candidate, Michael Lucero  (Libertarian). "Lyons and Garcia Richard are neck-and-neck," adds Rott. The current office holder is  Libertarian Aubrey Dunn

There's another important dimension to the State Land Office—revenues go to the state land trust, which benefits "schools, universities, hospitals and other important public institutions," according to its website.

By leasing state trust land for a wide array of uses, the Land Office generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support these beneficiaries while saving the average household about $800 in taxes.

Like many NPR articles, there's an audio version available. To listen to related NPR reporting, see their environment and energy collaborative.

Hat tip to InsideClimate News.

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Published on Thursday, November 1, 2018 in NPR
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