Home News Local News Candidates for Commissioner of Public Lands office participate in forum

Candidates for Commissioner of Public Lands office participate in forum

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Lisa Dunlap Photo Candidates for Commissioner of Public Lands differ about whether to increase distributions from the Permanent Fund. Democrat George Munoz, left; Libertarian Michael Lucero, center; and Republican Patrick Lyons discuss the issue at a New Mexico Landmen’s Association meeting in Roswell. Two other candidates did not attend.

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Fracking on public lands and greater distribution of trust funds were among the topics addressed Thursday by three of the five candidates for New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands participating in a candidate forum in Roswell.

The commissioner heads an office of 120 people who manage 9 million of surface acres and 13 million of mineral acres on behalf of the public. Money earned from lease sales and rental payments for oil and gas, farming and ranching, mining or other commercial activities are invested into a fund that now totals about $18 billion, with amounts distributed regularly to 22 public entities, primarily the K12 school system and public universities. In 2017, distributions were $722.96 million.

Current commissioner Aubrey Dunn Jr. has opted not to seek a second term as he instead sets his sights on the U.S. Senate seat now held by Martin Heinrich.

Republican Patrick Lyons, Democrat George Munoz and Libertarian Michael Lucero gathered at the Daniels Leadership Center at New Mexico Military Institute to address primarily energy company representatives attending a New Mexico Landmen’s Association quarterly meeting.

Lyons of Cuervo, New Mexico, previously served as commissioner from 2003 to 2010 and was a state senator from 1993 to 2002. Munoz is the current District 4 state senator from Gallup. Michael Lucero of Canon is a fifth-generation rancher working on leased land.

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Candidates not attending were Democrats Stephanie Garcia Richard, a teacher and current District 43 House of Representative member from Los Alamos, and Garrett O. VeneKlasen of Santa Fe, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

While the candidates answered several questions of particular concern to oil and gas industry members and other leaseholders, a question of broader interest had to do with whether the candidates would want greater distributions from the permanent fund. For several years, some legislators and advocacy groups have suggested increasing distributions to fund early childhood education or other causes.

“That fund was started in 1898, the Land Grant Permanent Fund. It took a hundred years to build it up. I don’t want to increase the distribution on it,” said Lyons. “In fact, when I was land commissioner before, I took on Gov. Bill Richardson on it, same issue. He took an extra 1 percent off of it every year he was in office. … I was the lead person to fight against that.”

He said any money taken from the fund essentially decreases what K12 schools can receive.

Munoz said that, as vice chair of the state Senate Pensions and Investments Oversight Committee, he thinks it is important that investments are made wisely so that money is not lost and that both investments and distributions are made with an eye to social justice.

He also talked about sponsoring a bill that would have taken $1 billion from the fund to spend over five to 10 years on education.

“Education is on a roller coast ride and it is on your backs on that roller coaster ride. When times are good, we have plenty of money. When you guys are bad, we don’t have any money. … You have to stabilize education in the state of New Mexico,” he said.

Lucero responded to the question about increased distributions by saying, “No, I don’t think we need to do that … I think it is a bad idea to use money that is set aside for the future for the present.”

All candidates talked about their strong support for oil and gas production on state land, with Munoz saying he would first want to develop a strategy to encourage more renewable energy production before emphasizing oil and gas. Lucero said that he didn’t feel that renewables could produce enough energy to make those methods worth the cost of production.

Lyons pointed out that state law now requires that 20 percent of energy production in the state be from solar and wind. “We want to do both,” he said. “We want to increase oil and gas production on state land, and we want to increase renewables on state land.”

The candidates were also asked whether they will support hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling methods, known as “fracking.”

The moderator indicated that fracking, first introduced in 1947, now represents 95 percent of oil extraction nationwide. He also noted that one-third of oil production in New Mexico now occurs on state public lands, an indication that fracking is prevalent.

Lucero said he would be willing to keep fracking away from Chaco Canyon, an area where many residents and landowners have opposed the practice, but that he supports the method in general.

“If it is beneficial to do it and it brings in income to the state, then I believe like, in this area of the state if it is working, then I think we need to continue doing it,” he said.

Lyons said that fracking has pulled New Mexico out of a recession and given new life to the Permian Basin, which he characterized as the “gift that keeps on giving.”

“You absolutely do not want to ban hydraulic fracking on state lands,” he said. “You are going to hurt education in the state.” He contended that there is no indication that fracking has damaged anything and instead has helped the state debt.

Munoz said he supports the practice and thinks people need to be better informed about fracking technology and its risks and benefits. He characterized proposals to store nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico as much riskier propositions.

The candidates also said that freshwater protection policies should be changed or considered for change; that industry should be consulted about how land use fees are charged; and that online lease sales could be alternated with in-person auctions. Lyons and Munoz also expressed support for legislation to give incentives for natural gas production by reducing royalty payments on wells that have marginal production levels.

The candidates agreed that royalty rates of 18.75 percent to 20 percent are unlikely to decrease in coming years, with Lyons saying, unlike Democratic candidates, he has promised that he would not seek to raise rates to 25 percent.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at rdrnews.com.

 

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.