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ABQ front and center in fight over federal royalties

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque has a front row seat this week in a national debate over government royalties generated by mineral extraction on federal lands.

The federal Royalty Policy Committee, which advises the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, will meet here Wednesday in one of only three national meetings in the country. The recommendations that emerge from the gathering could lead to major changes in federal policy and the amount of revenue collected from mining activities.

New Mexico has an outsized stake in the debate as the second-largest state recipient of energy-related royalties after Wyoming, said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller in a press conference with Attorney General Hector Balderas Monday morning.

“We must fight to receive a fair value for every resource mined on our land,” Keller said.

National environmental and consumer advocacy organizations joined Keller and Balderas in an effort to raise public awareness about the committee. Those groups say the committee, which U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke re-chartered last fall for the first time since former President Barack Obama’s first term in office, is stacked with industry representatives and few, if any, authentic public interest groups.

The group’s subcommittees have held dozens of meetings since October behind closed doors, said Wilderness Society Senior Energy Advisor Pam Eaton.

“We have a lot of concerns about the committee’s entire process, which is opaque and completely nontransparent,” Eaton told the Journal’s editorial board Monday. “It’s energy recommendations are wholly consistent with the agenda of oil and gas companies.”

At the committee’s last full gathering on Feb. 28 in Houston, it released 200 pages of documents outlining recommendations to vote on just two days before the meeting, said Dan Bucks, former director of the Multistate Tax Commission and Montana Revenue Department.

“The committee posted its recommendations sooner this time for the meeting in Albuquerque, but there’s still no real public participation or transparency,” Bucks said. “Billions of dollars are at stake and yet the committee is operating almost in secrecy.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, the committee will consider recommendations that could ease environmental reviews for drilling on federal lands and for calculating royalty payments, among other things.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, said the recommendations aim to provide more certainty in permitting timelines to attract more development on federal lands and potentially more royalty revenue. “Under Obama, there were so many barriers and red tape that public lands became less competitive, and it drove producers to seek other places to develop,” she said.

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