Stephanie Garcia Richard had a warning of sorts.
At a forum for land commissioner candidates during the Democratic Party’s primary election earlier this year, she told the audience the race for that easily overlooked office would get expensive.
The oil and gas industry would spend big, said the state legislator from Los Alamos who would go on to win her party’s nomination.
“They’re losing a friend on the fourth floor [of the state Capitol]; they’re losing a friend in the Land Office. They’re going to dig in,” Garcia Richard said.
Look at the finance reports filed this week by political action committees, and it is clear the future of oil and gas, not to mention the environment, is indeed playing an outsize role in the state’s election this year.
Environmental groups and oil companies rank among the biggest spenders on New Mexico’s election overall as they pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into political action committees. All of this is part of an effort to swing races from land commissioner to governor that have become the latest battlegrounds in long-running fights over conservation and a big piece of the state’s economy.
With Gov. Susana Martinez leaving office and Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn opting not to seek re-election, there is a lot on the line for the oil industry and environmentalists.
For the oil industry, business is at stake. And for conservationists, there is a long-awaited window of opportunity to advance environmental policies sidelined under a Republican administration.
There is a lot of money on the line, too.
During the last campaign finance reporting period of July 1 to Sept. 3, the three biggest donors to political action committees included one energy company and two groups funded at least in part by environmental organizations.
State Victory Action, a group financed by major liberal donors, including NextGen Climate Action, poured $700,500 into the left-leaning PAC Patriot Majority.
The League of Conservation Voters plowed $429,000 into CVNM Verde Voters Fund, a PAC connected to the advocacy group Conservation Voters New Mexico, which recently spent big on a television ad campaign knocking Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce.
And oil giant Chevron ranked third, showering $350,000 on New Mexico Strong.
“We have been on defense for so long,” said Demis Foster, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, describing the two terms of the Martinez administration.
This year, the group is on offense. It already has launched attack ads in the race for governor, blasting Pearce over his connections to the oil and gas industry. The group has endorsed his Democratic opponent, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and sees a particular importance in electing a governor who will be empathetic to its issues, such as requiring electric utilities get more power from renewable sources and strengthening regulatory protections for air and water.
“The governor really sets the tone at the top,” Foster said. “The governor’s race is important because no matter how hard we work in both chambers of the legislature, we need someone at the top to sign these bills.”
CVNM Verde Voters also is targeting the race for land commissioner, an office that controls 9 million surface acres of state trust land that is leased in part for oil and gas production. In that race, Garcia Richard is running against Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons, a Republican who has won support from the oil industry and is supportive of growing the sector in New Mexico. Libertarian Michael Lucero is running, too.
The group also is targeting some races for seats in the state House of Representatives and a seat on the Public Regulation Commission, which oversees utilities.
Ultimately, Foster argues the election year is an opportunity to diversify the economy of a state long reliant on oil and gas.
“What we are trying to do is leverage other resources. We’re not out to shut down an industry,” she said. “… They can’t be the single industry we prop up our entire economy on.”
Meanwhile, New Mexico is producing record quantities of oil amid a boom in the Permian Basin.
And the state is expecting a budget surplus around $1.2 billion thanks in large part to the oil boom.
“There is a ton on the line in terms of what the economy of New Mexico looks like and how healthy our state is,” said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
“Under Gov. Martinez, we’ve seen — across regulatory agencies — a greater focus on ensuring that processes and timelines are streamlined,” he said.
Ensuring the state government remains hospitable to the oil and gas industry will ensure the industry can continue developing in New Mexico, McEntyre argued.
The races for governor and land commissioner will be particularly important, he said.
All of this has set environmentalists and the oil industry on an expensive collision course.
“The stakes cannot be more clear,” said McEntyre.