Candidates vying to lead State Land Office amid revenue boom - Albuquerque Journal

Candidates vying to lead State Land Office amid revenue boom

Editor’s note: The Journal continues its series of stories focusing on key races in this year’s general election.

SANTA FE – Since taking office in 2019, Stephanie Garcia Richard has overseen record-setting revenue flows into the State Land Office, driven primarily by a surge in oil production in southeast New Mexico.

Specifically, the annual earnings recorded by the office that oversees more than 9 million acres of state trust land – plus 13 million subsurface acres – has jumped from roughly $1.1 billion during the 2019 budget year to $2.4 billion in the just-ended fiscal year.

“I remember when I came in four years ago and the doomsdayers were like, ‘She’s going to kill everything,'” Garcia Richard said. “Not only did we prove them wrong but we made the most of any land commissioner before us.”

But the Democratic land commissioner, who’s running against Republican Jefferson Byrd for reelection to a second four-year term, says she isn’t afraid to take drastic steps in order to achieve her policy goals.

In response to a Journal questionnaire, Garcia Richard said she would support a temporary moratorium on fracking permits for the oil industry on state trust land as a way to force the Legislature to boost New Mexico royalty rates to match Texas’ rates, an idea that has stalled in recent sessions at the Roundhouse.

“We’re not going to let up on that because it’s more money for the trust,” she said in an interview. “We’re leaving billions of dollars on the table.”

Byrd, her general election opponent, has his own ideas about royalty rates on oil and natural gas produced from state minerals, saying they should be allowed to fluctuate instead of being set at predetermined levels.

“It needs to be more of a fluid rate that adjusts as the market adjusts,” said Byrd, a Public Regulation Commission member who ran twice unsuccessfully for the northern New Mexico-based 3rd Congressional District.

He also said his background as a rancher in the eastern New Mexico area and environmental engineer makes him more qualified to lead the State Land Office than Garcia Richard, a former schoolteacher who served three terms in the state House before being elected to statewide office in 2018.

“Being a teacher doesn’t qualify you to determine how these businesses operate,” Byrd told the Journal, saying some business executives, ranchers and oil and gas officials have expressed frustration about their recent dealings with the State Land Office.

He also cast doubt on Garcia Richard’s credentials as an outdoorswoman, saying, “I don’t even know if she hunts – I don’t think she does.”

But Garcia Richard said the State Land Office has streamlined some core functions since she took office in 2019, such as reducing the average turnaround time to process applications for right-of-ways on state trust land from 90 to 60 days.

She also said her background motivates her to maximize revenue collected by the State Land Office, as much of the money flows into a state permanent fund that helps fund public schools and other beneficiaries.

“I think a schoolteacher has a unique perspective on what those dollars mean,” said Garcia Richard, who cited Byrd’s past comments calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be abolished.

While oil and natural gas still make up more than 80% of all State Land Office revenue, Garcia Richard has pushed to increase renewable energy leases on state trust land and this year signed off on leases with Pattern Energy for a massive wind project in east central New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Byrd said he also supports wind and other energy sources, and indicated he would hold oil and gas operators accountable for any environmental damage while simultaneously easing some drilling regulations.

“My whole life has been managing land,” he said.

Unlike some other statewide offices, the State Land Office has been held by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years.

The last three land commissioners before Garcia Richard was elected were Republican Pat Lyons, Democrat Ray Powell and Aubrey Dunn, who was elected in 2014 as a Republican but later changed his party affiliation to Libertarian.

Garcia Richard has significantly outraised Byrd in the race, having reported more than $402,000 in campaign contributions compared to about $46,600 in donations for Byrd.

Among other contributors, Garcia Richard has received donations from Ray Powell, Bay Area climate change activist Michael Kieschnick and several Democratic lawmakers.

For his part, Byrd has gotten contributions from several individuals involved in the oil and natural gas industries, including retired Xcel Energy President David Hudson. He also loaned $10,000 to his own campaign in April.


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