New Mexico fights to escape powerful grip of big oil and gas

New Mexico seeks to become an economy less reliant on oil and gas, but the extractive industries continue to exert their might on the state and its people

New Mexico fights to escape powerful grip of big oil and gas
Once a mining town, Carlsbad, N.M. , has seen a boom in oil and gas extraction, although the pandemic and a related decline in demand for oil over the last year hit workers hard. (Paul Ratje / AFP / Getty Images)

Published in the Guardian, New Mexico Political Report

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez quickly learned the harsh reality of New Mexico politics after she was appointed to fill an empty seat in the state Senate two years ago.

One of the first bills she pushed sought a four-year pause on new fracking permits on state lands, taking that time to study the environmental, health and safety impacts of the controversial oil and gas drilling technique.

Sedillo Lopez believed it was a sensible piece of legislation, one that was tempered and looked out for New Mexicans. But almost right away, the bill died, never getting out of committee. The same thing happened to a similar measure she pushed earlier this year, with support from dozens of environmental and Indigenous organizations. A fellow Democrat, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, declined to schedule the bill for a hearing.

The bill was always a long shot — no major oil and gas state has ever banned fracking. Only Vermont, Washington, Maryland and New York have. Yet Sedillo Lopez was startled by the vicious response to her proposal, including from pro-drilling critics who mischaracterized it as an outright fracking ban, rather than a pause. “There was a lot of gaslighting,” she said.

For the last decade, the oil and gas industry’s influence has only grown in New Mexico, one of the top oil and gas producers in the United States. The sector has promised good-paying jobs and economic growth, all while consistently damaging the environment and burdening minority communities with pollution. It has managed to maintain this stranglehold by staying intricately involved in state politics, according to campaign donation data, as well as documents reported here for the first time.

Sedillo Lopez said she knew before she took office that the oil and gas industry, like any other, would exert pressure where possible through campaign donations. But up close, the scale of the industry’s reach shook her: many New Mexico politicians from both major parties, including Cervantes, take huge campaign donations from fossil fuel interests.

“I didn’t know how dominant they were,” Sedillo Lopez said.

All told, oil and gas companies gave over $3.2 million to New Mexico politicians from both major parties in 2020, according to a report from New Mexico Ethics Watch. Cervantes received nearly 17% of his 2020 campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, totaling over $27,000. He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this story and was also silent after being accused of obstructing environmental legislation earlier this year.

The industry’s reach stretches beyond campaign donations. Its power led to the demise of a bill that would have outlawed spills of produced water, a toxic byproduct of oil and gas drilling. In committee where the measure died, Cervantes blocked public comment on the measure but did give fossil fuel lobbyists a chance to explain why they opposed it, according to the New Mexico Political Report.

The oil and gas industry has also been intimately involved in shaping the policies meant to regulate it — and even boasts about the number of edits it secures to new rules.

In a February presentation, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association told its board it had secured significant changes to a proposed rule for limiting methane pollution. The state accepted more than 70 of the trade group’s redline edits, NMOGA said, according to records obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute.

The “process has been fruitful,” the group announced in a slide deck.

Among the fruits of NMOGA’s nearly $1 million influence campaign was greater leniency on “emergency” exceptions for venting and flaring — referring to the releasing or burning off of excess methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“There’s not often a distinction between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the oil and gas industry” in New Mexico, says Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

“It gives them a chance to claim they’re taking ‘bold’ climate action, when at the end of the day, all methane regulation does is condone more fracking,” Nichols said in an email. “While the specific rules that were adopted by (the state) were certainly an improvement from where they were, they still condone some degree (of) flaring and venting, which is just unacceptable.”

The industry’s support, after winning dozens of revisions to the rule, is yet another sign of how entangled state decision-makers and the industry have become.

Despite the significant influence of the industry, there are limits to its power. Last year, the head of the state’s industry trade group showed support for a Democrat running for re-election to represent the southern half of New Mexico in Congress. The lawmaker lost to a Republican challenger, Yvette Herrell.

Its impact in the state is similarly checkered. For example, oil and gas production contributed about $2.8 billion to the state in fiscal year 2020, over $1 billion of which went toward funding public schools. The oil and gas association is running ads urging the public to oppose environmental restrictions on the industry for the sake of students.

However, New Mexico schools consistently rank among the nation’s worst.

Oil and gas also support tens of thousands of jobs, yet it can be tenuous employment. “The counties that produce oil and gas, they are in a perpetual boom-and-bust cycle,” said Janie Chermak, a University of New Mexico economics professor.

Younger activists are growing frustrated. Artemisio Romero y Carver, an 18-year-old student, lobbied at the Capitol this year on behalf of the organization Youth United for Climate Crisis Action, or YUCCA, and watched as environmental legislation failed — from the fracking pause to the Climate Solutions Act to a bill aimed at protecting water from industry pollution.

“Leaving this session, I have never felt less hope for our government,” Romero y Carver said. “In the same year that California burned and Texas froze, the New Mexico state Legislature (passed) no or very, very limited environmental protection legislation.”

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Emily founded Floodlight in 2021, after more than a decade as an environment reporter in Washington, D.C. She reported for The Guardian, Politico, E&E News and CQ Roll Call.

Emily Holden/Floodlight