Home News Local News Legislative proposal to exempt NM from drilling ban rejected

Legislative proposal to exempt NM from drilling ban rejected

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House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, of House District 54, stands behind a podium while speaking to an audience at the Hi-Q Venue in Roswell in July. On Thursday, House Joint Memorial 3, which Townsend was a primary sponsor of, was tabled by the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee in a 7 to 4 vote. (Alex Ross Photo)

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A legislative memorial proposed by New Mexico House and Senate Republicans, that would have asked the Biden administration to exempt the state from a temporary halting of new oil and gas leases and permits for drilling on federal lands, was rejected Thursday by the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

House Joint Memorial 3 (HJM 3) whose primary sponsors included House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia and Senate Minority Leader Gregory Baca, R-Belen, was tabled by the Committee on a 7 to 4 vote. Townsend, who is also a member of the committee was among those who voted against the tabling motion.

In an interview after the committee adjourned, Townsend of House District 54, which includes Eddy County, the second largest oil producing county in the state, accused the Democratic-led committee of being hostile toward the oil and gas industry.

“I think it is unfortunate that the committee was so biased against oil and gas that the state could possibly suffer,” he said.

HJM 3, as written, would have requested that President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Interior grant the state of New Mexico a waiver from a 60-day moratorium on the issuance of new oil and gas leases and drilling permits on federal lands, citing the detrimental impact such a halt in new permits could have on the oil and gas industry, which New Mexico depends on for much of its revenue.

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As one of his first acts upon taking office in January, Biden signed an executive order instituting a pause on the granting of new permits for oil and gas development on federal land, in order to review the federal leasing program and as part of the administration’s efforts to address climate change. Leases for development on private and state lands are not affected by the order.

A joint memorial is defined by the New Mexico Legislature’s website as “a formal expression of legislative desire, usually addressed to another governmental body, in the form of a petition or declaration of intent” supported by both legislative chambers but does not carry the weight of law.

When presenting the memorial to the committee Thursday, state Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, whose Lea County House District includes a portion of the oil rich Permian Basin, said the joint memorial was meant to send a message to the Biden administration.

“This memorial very simply urges the president to change course,” Scott told the committee.

Backers of the motion, which included the representatives from the business community and the oil and gas industry, warned the freeze on new leases and permits for oil and gas activity on federal lands, could wreck havoc on the state’s budget, as well as funding for schools throughout the state.

“That industry provides 35% or more of our state’s revenue and is the primary funder of our schools,” Carla Sontagg, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition said.

Others alleged a temporary ban on new leases on federal land within the state could prompt an exodus from New Mexico by the oil and gas industry, and for them to relocate operations to Texas, where there is less federal land, but opportunities for oil and gas development on private and state lands.

Those opposed to the 60-day freeze on new leases and permits is meant to protect the environment and public health.

“The truth is we can’t keep making sacrifices, propping up the oil and gas industry and expect our quality of life and economic opportunities to improve,” Rebecca Sobel, of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group, said at the hearing.

Others alleged that the consequences of the 60-day moratorium on leases and permits is being exaggerated by the oil and gas industry. They argue the temporary leasing ban does not ban drilling or development on public land, just the granting of new leases.

Nadia Steinzor, of the Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental group based in New Mexico, said the oil and natural gas developers already have more than 6,000 permits and leases for activity on federal lands that have been approved and could be used while the moratorium is in place.

Townsend said it is more than drilling permits that cannot be granted during the moratorium, but also permits providing right-of-ways through federal land, as well as construction of roads, power lines, along with water and gas lines, all of which are needed for oil and gas extraction.

“It won’t just affect federal lands, when drilling occurs, sometimes you have to build a pipeline across federal land to get to private land,” he said.

State Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Albuquerque, and chairman of the committee, though said he believed a joint memorial on the issue was not a productive use of time. He noted that the leasing and permitting freeze had been in place for about 20 days.

By the time such a joint memorial could make its way through the Legislature and to Washington D.C., the suspension on new leases and permits will likely be over.

Townsend said after the hearing that he and others who were backing the proposed joint memorial are still determined to make their voices heard.

He said that he and others who proposed the memorial are preparing to solicit signatures from individual lawmakers for a letter to be sent to the Biden administration that expresses the same concerns that would have been included in a joint memorial.

“We will go around and get some individual Democrats who were not on the committee, who I am sure will sign on,” Townsend said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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