Democratic governor juggles energy priorities in oil region

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s Democratic governor is balancing competing pressures from environmental activists and the fossil fuel industry as she seeks reelection in 2022 in a major region for oil production.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham returns to the podium for a scheduled annual gathering of oil industry executives next week, two years after she vowed that her administration would work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and help New Mexico become the nation’s No. 2 oil producer.

At the same time, the first-term governor has indicated an interest in attending next month’s United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, where world leaders will talk about accelerating action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement to slow global warming.

An email exchange among top administration officials outlines the opportunity to travel to Scotland in cooperation with the Energy Futures Initiative, a project led by Ernest Moniz, former secretary of energy under President Barack Obama. Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the event “would certainly be an exciting opportunity,” though travel plans are not final.

The two forums highlight Lujan Grisham’s challenges in overseeing a state government that is increasingly dependent on income from oil and natural gas production — while attempting to chart a course toward cleaner energy sources.

At least seven Republicans are exploring a run for their party’s nomination for governor, including failed prior candidates for Congress and Senate. Early contenders run the gamut from education services entrepreneur and state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, to military veteran-turned-Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block and Albuquerque shooting range owner Louie Sanchez.

New Mexico state and local governments — and public schools, in particular — rely heavily on income from the oil and natural gas industry. That dependence has grown since Lujan Grisham won election in 2018, according to the Legislature’s budget and accountability office.

As economic activity has rebounded from early pandemic restrictions, New Mexico oil production has reached record levels, recently exceeding 1.2 million barrels a day.

Lujan Grisham has cautioned President Joe Biden against efforts to curb oil production on public lands because it would affect her ability to achieve goals like universal access to early childhood education. A federal judge has blocked the Biden administration’s suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water.

The governor’s stance has been disheartening among advocates for a faster transition to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power, amid natural disasters and extreme weather linked to climate change.

They include Seneca Johnson of Santa Fe, a recent high school graduate and registered Democrat who voted for the first time in 2020. She says the clamor for oil income to support public education holds a bitter irony for youths in a state where academic proficiency among K-12 students trails most or all states.

“Growing up, I had heard that oil and gas is paying for our education,” said Johnson, who joined an anti-fracking protest of about 200 people outside the governor’s office in the state Capitol in late September. “This system doesn’t really seem to work in the first place.”

Political science professor Lonna Atkeson said the governor is among politicians who are accountable to constituents who work in the oil fields of southeastern New Mexico.

“That’s really important in the south, those interests,” she said. “You live with your constituents here. You’re supposed to be sensitive to their needs.”

Lujan Grisham has set herself apart from a Republican predecessor in supporting new restrictions on local oilfield pollution and establishing future quotas in state statue for renewable energy production.

State oil and gas regulators adopted rules earlier this year to limit venting and flaring as a way to reduce local releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Newly proposed rules are aimed at reducing oil industry contributions to ground-level ozone.

Reelection would give Lujan Grisham unprecedented influence over the future of renewable energy in New Mexico by allowing her to appoint the next Public Regulation Commission that oversees electrical utilities in 2023. A state constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2020, ended direct election of the commission.