Editor’s note: This story has been updated to make clear that the proposal concerns federally owned mineral rights beneath privately owned land.
New Mexico Tech is about to play a big role in a proposed new fund for early childhood education in the state.
The Socorro university, under an agreement signed with the State Land Office this month, will assess the commercial potential of untapped subsurface mineral deposits held by the federal government in New Mexico.
The Land Office believes those deposits could generate new funds for early childhood education, but it wants Tech to analyze their commercial worth before it stakes any legal claims and seeks a federal transfer.
The results, to be delivered in March, will be used to support the office’s efforts to get legislative approval for a new Early Childhood Education Land Grant Permanent Fund.
Under the memorandum of understanding, the university will identify the most promising sites statewide and evaluate their revenue-generating capacity, said Patrick Padilla, Land Office assistant commissioner of mineral resources.
“There’s a lot of overhead associated with managing that land, so we want to make sure we’re not taking on an undue burden,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s economically feasible, and not just a lot of unproductive land that we end up managing through this initiative.”
Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn proposed legislative approval of a bill in August creating the permanent fund and using income generated for early childhood education.
Congress would first have to approve the mineral rights transfer, which the Land Office is still discussing with the state’s congressional delegation. But Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., is expected to push it forward at the federal level, said Dunn spokeswoman Emily Strickler.
The Land Office says about 6.6 million acres of unleased federal subsurface deposits could be tapped around the state. The deposits in question are located under private land in what is known as a split estate, meaning private owners control the surface but the federal government has rights to what lies beneath.
The Land Office believes the proposal could generate about $210 million a year for the fund through mining over those mineral deposits. That estimate is based on revenue generated from the 13 million subsurface acres the state currently manages in New Mexico, about 20 percent of which is in production, Padilla said.
Dunn’s office will pay about $47,000 for the Tech study.
“It will give us a broad-stroke overview of the good areas, the bad areas, and why,” Padilla said.
Tech’s Petroleum Recovery Research Center and the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral resources will work together, said Martha Cather, geologist and principal investigator on the project.
Those entities will comb through existing surveys and studies to pinpoint the most likely places for commercial deposits within the targeted acreage, Cather said. That includes potential for everything from oil and gas, helium, and precious minerals to potash, copper and industrial metals like gypsum and limestone.
“It’s a high-level evaluation that won’t look at specific land parcels,” Cather said. “There’s no field work involved. It’s strictly a synthesis of existing research at this point.”