Public lands commissioner pledged to refuse fossil fuel money, opponent hasn’t raised any

Incumbent receives endorsement from local environmental group

By: - May 27, 2022 5:00 am

Smoke from the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire picked up in the late afternoon on Tuesday, April 26. Fire crews did burn defense lines to prepare for heavy winds the rest of the week. “Excellent progress in the fire (Tuesday), securing lines in anticipation of high winds,” wrote the federal fire agencies working the fire. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

With the climate crisis intensifying wildfires in New Mexico and across the West, one candidate for public lands commissioner pledged to refuse any money from extractive industries. The other appears to have not raised any money at all.

Northern New Mexico has had days that are 15 degrees Fahrenheit above normal temperatures for this time of year, according to Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA). New Mexico and much of western United States has for years been in a megadrought, which scientists say is caused in part by climate change.

Increasing emissions speed up climate change, accelerating rising temperatures — the root cause of wildfires getting worse here and across the globe, according to a report released in February by UNEP and GRID-Arendal.

The study found that climate change and human conversion of land, usually forests, for agricultural use are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a 50% global increase of extreme fires by the end of the century.

In response to questions from Source New Mexico, incumbent Stephanie Garcia Richard said there is no clearer message that we are facing the perils of a changing climate “than witnessing the beating heart of our state burn to the ground.”

“In addition to the loss of private property, we are seeing forests, habitats, watersheds and viewsheds burn that will not recover in our lifetimes,” she said. “Increased fuel loads, lower dew points, single-digit humidity, and longer and stronger windy seasons have all led us to this place.”

Her office has the authority to implement a fire ban on all the land it manages statewide, totaling 9 million acres, Garcia Richard said.

Unlike Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Garcia Richard opposes so-called blue hydrogen, which is developed from natural gas.

“We’ve rejected two applications for blue hydrogen projects,” Garcia Richard said. Both were research proposals, she said, one from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and another from an unnamed private company.

She said she is one of the only people on the New Mexico State Investment Council who is “championing investments in renewable energy and stopping hydrogen.”

“We will continue our effort to go beyond tripling our renewable energy portfolio,” she said.

She said she also opposes nuclear energy and the development of Hydrogen Production Hubs here in New Mexico.

“If the discussion centered around development of green hydrogen, I believe it could be a real renewable industry,” she said. “But blue hydrogen – no. I have already denied two requests to establish blue hydrogen operations on state trust land.”

Asked whether her opposition to blue hydrogen has led to any friction with the governor’s office, Garcia Richard said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Garcia Richard also supports placing a moratorium on new gas development in the state of New Mexico, placing a moratorium on new gas plant investment for utilities in New Mexico. Her office has the authority to influence applications to the Land Office for those kinds of uses or development, she said.

YUCCA on May 16 released its endorsements of candidates running for office in the 2022 primary elections, backing Garcia Richard.

As of Thursday, commissioner of public lands is the only statewide race YUCCA weighed in on so far.

Garcia Richard is a former state lawmaker from Silver City who was elected as commissioner in 2018.

Her only opponent in the race is Republican Jefferson Byrd, a member of the state’s Public Regulation Commission from Tucumcari. 

Former Public Lands Commissioner Aubrey Dunn filed to run in the Republican primary for the seat in March but was disqualified later that month by the Secretary of State’s Office.

YUCCA said they sent the same exact set of questions to Byrd that they sent to Garcia Richard, but he did not respond.

As of Wednesday, Byrd’s campaign had only turned in one campaign finance report, which showed no money raised at all, according to campaign finance records.

No Comment

As of press time on Wednesday, Byrd did not respond to multiple emails and voicemail messages seeking comment for this story. We’ll update this story if we here back.

Incumbent refusing donations from extractive industries

Garcia Richard has taken the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, in which she agreed to adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs, lobbyists or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies.

She said the brunt of the impacts we face due to climate change will be put on those who contributed the least emissions, including people living in the global South outside of Europe and North America, Indigenous communities, and communities with lower incomes.

YUCCA asked Garcia Richard whether she agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reversed within eight years in order to achieve carbon neutrality in time to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees and to avoid catastrophic runaway climate disruption. She told them yes.

Produced water is wastewater that results from the extraction of oil. Scientists say little is known about whether the waste is safe to put back into the environment.

YUCCA asked Garcia Richard what specific policies she would pursue next year to begin rapidly transitioning the economy to achieve carbon neutrality in the timeframe set by the world’s leading scientists.

She pointed to her work as land commissioner to end future oil and gas leasing in Chaco Canyon, and to plug and remediate oil and gas wells. She said she would “continue to fight against produced water and strengthen all regulatory rules.”

Garcia Richard also told YUCCA there must be a Just Energy Transition Fund, which would identify alternative revenue sources for the New Mexico state budget and allocate funds from oil and gas directly into community-driven climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

That includes the people living in San Miguel and Mora Counties, thousands of whom have fled the massive Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. The median annual income there is about $20,000 and $15,000, respectively, according to the census.

Garcia Richard said in an emailed response to questions from Source NM that the land office has worked with land managers, including the Bureau of Land Management, on thinning projects that reduce fuel loads on large landscapes in heavily forested areas.

“We believe this work will serve to mitigate from catastrophic fire events by lessening the dense understory, creating natural fire breaks and allowing for fire suppression teams to more easily move throughout forested areas,” Garcia Richard said.

Her office has also aided in the restoration of healthy watersheds vital to such an arid state while banning the use of fresh water for fracking on state land, she said. And the office has worked to protect vulnerable areas like Chaco Canyon from further fossil fuel development, while trying to lessen New Mexico’s reliance on fossil fuels, transitioning to other uses of state land like renewable energy and outdoor recreation.

She hired a landscape level planner who is piloting programs that she said are meant to make the ecosystem more fire resilient. 

For example, Garcia Richard said over the course of 2022, the planner will create a comprehensive transportation plan for thousands of acres of state land in the Whites Peak area including parts of Mora and Colfax counties to ensure public access while limiting damage to non-developed areas.

This requires collaborating with state, local and tribal officials because of the “checkerboard” of isolated or noncontiguous sections of lands right next to each other but owned by the state government, the federal government, tribes and private owners.

“Because of the checkerboard nature of our state, the work we do on restoration and remediation has to be done in partnership with our fellow land managers,” she said, “or else the benefits of the work we do on state land ends at the imaginary border because fire doesn’t recognize boundaries.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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