N.M. Land Commissioner Slams State Attorney General For Siding With Feds, California

New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn
N.M. Land Commissioner Slams State Attorney Genera.

The Obama administration’s last-minute regulatory push against oil and natural gas development on federal lands is still stirring controversy in New Mexico, with two state officials publicly clashing over the new restrictions.

New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn (R) has sharply criticized state Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) for supporting a regulation that imposes new federal restrictions on methane emissions. The so-called “venting and flaring rule,” finalized by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) late last year, drew immediate legal challenges from three Western states – Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota – as well as industry groups.

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn. Credit: NMSLO

But in mid-December, New Mexico’s attorney general defended the rule, siding with the outgoing Obama administration and California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), who was recently elected to the U.S. Senate.

“It is clear that Attorney General Balderas is politicizing the issue and doesn’t have the best interest of the state at heart,” Dunn told Western Wire. The attorney general’s defense of the venting and flaring rule, part of the Obama administration’s broader environmental agenda, “is clearly more at home in California than it is in New Mexico,” Dunn said.

Balderas has defended his intervention in the lawsuit, arguing that the BLM rule will force oil drillers to capture and sell more natural gas, boosting state revenues. But Balderas has also been working with a coalition of liberal attorneys general – led by Eric Schneiderman of New York and supported by former U.S. vice president Al Gore – that uses litigation to defend Obama-era restrictions on oil, natural gas and coal.

At the same time, the environmental groups lining up with Balderas and Harris – including the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians – are part of the broader “keep it in the ground” campaign that opposes fossil fuel production of any kind. “[A]nyone proposing a new fracking field, coal mine or oil well is, in effect, a climate denier,” Bill McKibben, the leader of the campaign, wrote last year.

Opponents of the BLM venting and flaring rule asked a federal judge in Cheyenne, Wyo. for a preliminary injunction against the regulation earlier this month. They argued the BLM rules are unlawful because the federal Clean Air Act clearly puts states and a different federal agency – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – in charge of regulating emissions. The rule would also create a needless new layer of federal bureaucracy on top of existing state regulations and industry programs that have already cut methane emissions from oil and gas development, BLM’s critics say.

For example, Western Energy Alliance – a supporter of Western Wire – points to a 21 percent reduction in methane emissions since 1990, while at the same time natural gas production has increased 47 percent. The Alliance and other industry groups, such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America, have warned that the BLM’s new requirements would slow or halt drilling in some areas. The problem is a lack of pipeline infrastructure, which is needed to capture and transport methane, the primary constituent of natural gas.

The threat of oil wells not being drilled because of the BLM venting and flaring rule is a particular concern for Dunn, the New Mexico land commissioner. Every year, the New Mexico State Land Office distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from energy development on public land to school districts and universities. The “cost of implementation and production limitations” tied to the BLM venting and flaring rule could decrease royalty revenues by as much as 25 percent, Dunn said.

“New Mexico is currently faced with a severe budget deficit, and the implementation of this rule could not come at a worse time for states such as ours that are heavily reliant on oil and gas production for a balanced budget,” he said.

The New Mexico attorney general has already won a partial legal victory in this case: The BLM venting and flaring rule entered into force this month. States and industry groups had petitioned the federal court in Cheyenne for a temporary restraining order, but in a Jan. 16 decision, Judge Scott Skavdahl rejected the request.

The lawsuit against the BLM will continue and the venting and flaring rule could still be overturned by the courts. But in the meantime, Dunn is also following efforts by Congress and the Trump White House to roll back Obama-era restrictions on oil and natural gas production on federal lands.

Washington should take “a more common sense approach” to federal lands issues that “take into account the economic impacts on oil and gas producing states in the west that rely on hydrocarbon revenue.”

In response to Dunn, Balderas spokesman James Hallinan cited the economic value of methane emissions from venting and flaring, rather than potential losses in oil production caused by the new BLM restrictions.

“It was necessary to intervene to require producers to pay royalties to New Mexico school children from gas that is unnecessarily wasted,” Hallinan told Western Wire, the same statement issued in mid-December when Balderas and the California attorney general intervened in the case.

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