Governor, land commissioner wins bring blue wave to New Mexico

Source: Kelsey Brugger, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2018

Eight years ago, Republican Susana Martinez sailed into New Mexico’s governor’s mansion with her pockets full of oil and gas money.

Last night, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham won the race to succeed the termed-out Martinez.

Her double-digit advantage over Republican Steve Pearce gives Democrats hold of two branches of state government for the first time since 2010. Democrats also crushed the GOP in several state House races and in the competitive land commissioner race, prompting political observers to declare a state-level blue wave.

“What we did tonight is send a very clear message that this state is ready to lead in so many ways,” Lujan Grisham declared to hundreds of supporters in Albuquerque.

The first thing she brought up was energy.

“We will lead in renewable clean energy, and we will be known as the clean energy state of America,” she said.

That’s no small promise in a state that ranks third in the country in oil and gas production. Lujan Grisham’s victory could mean stronger methane pollution rules and greater authority for state oil regulators, as well as influence over congressional redistricting in 2021.

Still, Lujan Grisham knows she must walk a fine line with the oil industry.

“She has underscored a commitment of wanting to work with the industry,” said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman at the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association. “So we can keep our momentum going.”

The industry has plenty of momentum. Since 2010, oil production has tripled in the state — a fact the oil industry attributes in part to Martinez, who “ensured that an effective regulatory scheme has been in place to handle the increase in investment and production,” according to McEntyre.

It helped that the state overlies part of the Permian Basin, where business has boomed in recent years as the price of oil soared.

State coffers have ballooned, and New Mexico could have as much as a $2 billion budget surplus. Lujan Grisham has said she supports hiring more teachers and social workers to address poverty throughout the state.

In recent polls, oil and gas issues were not top-priority issues for most people surveyed. But political science professor Gabriel Sanchez at the University of New Mexico said climate change and pollution have “definitely been an issue” in the race.

At debates, there were some tense exchanges “where Pearce suggested Lujan Grisham’s approach to increase royalties and provide more regulations on fracking could kill the state’s economy,” Sanchez said.

New Mexico has a lower royalty rate than neighboring states, drawing some oil operators there. Stronger government regulations could drive some out.

Some environmentalists in the state say that’s not their goal. “We are not trying to put the oil and gas industry out of business,” said Ben Shelton of Conservation Voters New Mexico. “We want to make sure they are good neighbors.”

He added that New Mexicans “understand our dependence [on the oil industry]. and they understand the downside.”

However, Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard’s somewhat unexpected 7-point victory over Republican Patrick Lyons in the race for land commissioner bodes well for environmentalists. The state’s land commissioner has authority over state land and mineral rights, and oversees leasing and royalties on state-owned land.

Garcia Richard was not shy about her intentions to aggressively regulate polluters. She opposes hydraulic fracturing in some places, and water quality was among her top campaign issues.

The unique state lands oversight position is fairly autonomous and has garnered national media attention in recent days. Chevron Corp. funneled about $2 million into a political action committee supporting Lyons. Garcia Richard received $650,000 from Conservation Voters New Mexico’s Verde Voters Fund for the primary and general races.