A little-known political race in New Mexico is drawing big money and attention from national environmental groups, and oil, gas and mining interests, in the lead-up to next week's midterm elections.
The race for the state's next land commissioner, a position that oversees an area larger than 9 U.S. states, is viewed as crucial to determining the state's energy future. And it could have an even wider impact on the region's economy and the global climate.
As head of the State Land Office, the commissioner manages 9 million acres of state trust lands, approving developments like oil and gas drilling, ranching and renewable energy projects.
"The land commissioner can sell the land, lease the land or trade the land without anybody else's approval, which is unlike any other constitutional office I've heard of," says Ray Powell, who served in the position longer than anyone else in state history.
That autonomy, he says, makes the position attractive to interest groups and industry, particularly oil and gas. New Mexico is one of the top oil-and-gas producing states in the country.
"Traditionally that has been a pattern, that extractive industries see an advantage by participating in these elections," Powell says.
What's different this year is the scale of the participation, and that environmental groups are pushing back.
Longtime political analysts and pollsters say the spending in this year's land commission race is unprecedented.
Chevron, one of the largest oil companies in the world, has put $2 million into a political action committee that's supporting Patrick Lyons, a Republican, who served as land commissioner from 2003 to 2010.
The League of Conservation Voters, a national conservation group, and local environmental organizations are putting their support behind Stephanie Garica Richard, a Democrat, who has promised to hold oil and gas accountable.
"When you turn on the television, you won't watch any more than five minutes without running into a land commission ad for or against these candidates," says Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc., an Albuquerque-based polling firm.
The reason, Sanderoff says, is because the race is very close. Lyons and Garcia Richard are neck-and-neck, far outpacing a third candidate for the job, Libertarian Michael Lucero.
"We're at a crossroads with this particular office and our reliance on extractive industry nationwide, but particularly in New Mexico," says Garcia Richard. "So it's not surprising that industry would sort of use this office, this race, as a referendum on the future of their industry."
Garcia Richard says she's not out to pull the plug on oil and gas. The state relies on it for money. But, she says, she'd like to invest more in renewable energy and better manage the industry, a role her supporters say is all the more important because of the pro-fossil fuel Trump administration.
"We've never seen the attacks to our air, land and water that we've seen under Trump," says Demis Foster, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico. "If we're able to elect a pro-conservation land commissioner we can do things like implement a statewide methane capture rule."
That would require oil and gas operators to capture emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from oil and gas production on state lands. The Trump administration has moved to undo those types of regulations on federal lands.
Industry groups warn that such regulation could scare away oil and gas developers and slow booming production.
"There's a $2 billion surplus. You know how much infrastructure we can do with schools and bridges and highways [with that]?" says candidate Lyons. "That's why it's so important that we have someone who works with the oil and gas companies to make sure we maximize our revenues at the same time as taking care of our lands."
Robert Stranahan, an attorney who served as general counsel at the State Land Office under Lyons, says that if the state started putting tough regulations on oil and gas producers, or banned fracking on state lands - something Garcia Richard's opponents are worried about - oil and gas operators would move their development to federal lands.
"They'd still drain the basin," he says. "The money would just go to the feds instead of the state."
Utility Commissions Drawing Interest, Too
The land commission isn't the only down-ballot election that's been getting a lot of attention from energy and environment interests in the weeks leading up to the midterms.
Conservation Voters New Mexico has also put hundreds of thousands of dollars into races for the Public Regulation Commission, which oversees utilities (among other things.) There are two spots open on the five-person commission and the group is hoping to elect progressive, pro-renewable energy candidates to those roles as well.
The campaign is part of a broader push by the League of Conservation Voters to change America's energy future from the bottom-up.
That group is putting money into utility commission races in states like Arizona, Nebraska and Georgia, in addition to New Mexico.
"We need to act, and act quickly, on climate change," says Pete Maysmith, the group's senior vice president of campaigns. "We can't wait for Washington, so we have to look at different venues."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The 2018 midterm elections are on pace to shatter spending records. Our next story is about a race that's drawing some of that big money. It's in New Mexico. And it is a race that usually doesn't get a lot of attention - a race for land commissioner. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Even in New Mexico, the land commissioner is not a well-known position. But don't let that fool you. The person in that role is responsible for a combined area larger than nine U.S. states, 9 million acres of state trust lands. The goal is to get revenues from those lands that go on to fund the state's public schools and parks. And there's almost no oversight. Here's Ray Powell, who served two stints in the position.
RAY POWELL: The land commissioner can sell the land, lease the land or trade the land without anybody else's approval, which is unlike any other constitutional office I've ever heard of.
ROTT: So if you're a rancher who wants to graze cattle on state lands, you go to the commissioner. Same if you're a multibillion-dollar oil and gas company looking to drill or if you're a group that wants more renewable energy.
BRIAN SANDEROFF: We're seeing more money than ever before being spent on the land commission office.
ROTT: Brian Sanderoff is a political analyst and pollster in New Mexico. And he says you can't watch TV for more than five minutes without seeing ads like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Why are Chevron and big oil and gas companies spending $2 million supporting Pat Lyons for state land commissioner? Because they know he's their man in the State Land Office.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: As a legislator, Stephanie Garcia Richard killed an opportunity for rural communities such as Tierra Amarilla to have reliable heating resources.
ROTT: The ads are being paid for largely by out-of-state interests. Oil and gas companies are lining up behind Patrick Lyons, a Republican who's been in the office before. Environmental groups are supporting Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat who's promised to hold oil and gas accountable.
STEPHANIE GARCIA RICHARD: I believe that I represent the future. He represents the past.
ROTT: Garcia Richard says she's not out to pull the plug on oil and gas. The state relies heavily on the industry for funds.
GARCIA RICHARD: But also, I've been quite outspoken in my desire to diversify our economy in New Mexico and to really provide bold leadership around build-up of renewable energy on state land.
ROTT: Lyons, her opponent, says he's also for renewable energy. But oil and gas is the state's bread and butter, and he points out it's booming right now.
PATRICK LYONS: Let's ride this the best we can. You know, there's a $2 billion surplus. You know how much infrastructure we can do in schools and bridges and highways? I mean, we can do a lot of infrastructure in New Mexico. And that's why it's so important that we have someone that works with the oil and gas companies to make sure we maximize our revenues, same time, taking care of our lands.
ROTT: The fight in some ways mirrors a larger one playing out nationally. The Trump administration is pushing its America energy first agenda, opening up more public lands for oil and gas drilling, propping up coal, all in an effort to try and boost the economy. Environmental groups, citing climate change, are pushing for a rapid shift to renewables like solar and wind. Demis Foster is with Conservation Voters New Mexico.
DEMIS FOSTER: The state level is where it's at now to build - put protections in place and get these really good candidates elected.
ROTT: For example, she says if Garcia Richard is elected...
FOSTER: We can do things like implement a statewide new methane capture rule.
ROTT: Which would force oil and gas companies to capture emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, on state lands. The Trump administration has rolled back those types of regulations nationally. Foster's group and others are also targeting public utility commission races in New Mexico, Arizona, Nebraska and Georgia. The goal, they say, is to shape the country's energy future from the bottom up. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.