State trust lands were granted to New Mexico by the federal government around the time it was granted statehood. The New Mexico State Land Office is in charge of managing 9 million acres of state trust lands to provide a stable source of funding for education, hospitals and other important public institutions in the state of New Mexico. In this respect, the state trust lands are like any other public land: they’re here for our shared benefit. The Land Office’s website confirms as much, saying “The Land Office seeks to optimize revenues while protecting the health of the land for future generations.”
Given the mandate and past practice of the Land Office, the role of the land office in the management of state trust lands is relatively simple: get the most value out in a way that doesn’t degrade the land or preclude other uses down the line.
In January 2016, the Bureau of Land Management proposed new rules that would require producers of oil and gas to take measures to minimize the amount of natural gas that they burn off (“flare”) or simply release (“vent”) in to the air. This rule (and its EPA’s complimentary rule) would have obvious benefits. It would help the state’s budget shortfall by directing more money in to state coffers. The state currently collects a severance tax of 1.8% to 3.75% on oil and gas captured from state lands. Requiring the industry to capture a higher percentage of that gas (instead of burning or wasting it) will result more taxable gas, helping the state dig out of its budget hole.
The rules would also have the effect of preventing more methane gas and carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. Methane is currently responsible for approximately one quarter of the global warming that the world is currently experiencing. This is because methane is an atmospheric “super pollutant,” trapping heat in the atmosphere 80 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide. This is a crucial part of these rules. Climate change has already begun to hit New Mexico, and we can expect those impacts to intensify in the coming years unless drastic action is taken to curb emissions of methane and carbon dioxide.
Given the role of the Land Office, and the important role these methane rules will play in New Mexico, it was baffling and frustrating to hear State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn come out in opposition to these rules in April. Commissioner Dunn “strenuously objected” to the rules, but not out of any concern for the wellbeing of state trust lands or beneficiaries. Instead, Dunn fell back on Republican party talking points to defend his position, saying that the rules represented “federal overreach and intrusion” into state affairs. Dunn isn’t trying to protect New Mexico, he’s trying to protect the profit margins of wealthy oil and gas developers.
Dunn’s opposition to this common sense regulation of the oil and gas industry is particularly offensive given his comments on the potential necessity of gas tax increases on everyday New Mexicans in order to address the state’s budget crisis. Aubrey Dunn is saying that we should impose an additional tax burden on nearly every single person in the state of New Mexico, rather than require the oil and gas industry to clean up its act. These are not the words of someone who is looking out for the best interests of New Mexicans.
The state trust lands are ours, and have considerable value beyond our ability to extract mineral profit for public institutions. New Mexicans deserve to have our state trust lands administered carefully, responsibly, and in a politically neutral manner. Aubrey Dunn isn’t doing that, and is instead indicating that he’s more interested in protecting oil and gas shareholders than New Mexicans.