Q & A with Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard

New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard oversees 9 million surface acres and 13 million mineral acres, with the mission of raising money for public education and other public institutions. The former teacher first won election to the job in 2018 after serving for six years as a state legislator for Los Alamos and parts of Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

READ MORE: Misplaced Trust - How 14 land grant colleges took 8.2 million acres from 123 Indigenous nations >>

SFR: More than 20% of New Mexico’s trust land income since 1900 has arrived in just the last five years due to a spike in oil and gas extraction in the Permian Basin. How has this spike affected New Mexico?

Stephanie Garcia Richard: Because we’re so dependent on industry that has boom-and-bust cycles, a lot of what’s driven the industry is geopolitical forces that New Mexico doesn’t have leverage in. The way we try to smooth out those boom-and-bust cycles that are beyond our control is to invest the money in a permanent fund and to have a rolling average annual distribution. We have record revenue, and in my office, we take our dual mandate very seriously to raise revenue, but not at the expense of the resource. We are tamping down on bad actors, ensuring that fresh water is not being used for oil and gas; ensuring that emissions are captured; not issuing leases that are close to schools and neighborhoods and hospitals.

How does the boom relate to schools?

I’m happy to see the additional revenue, which will support our public schools, universities and hospitals to a degree that we have never done historically. Early childhood education is included in that as well. Because this office exists, because we do generate revenue off of our public land, we actually save tax paying households.

When you initially ran for state land office in 2018, you campaigned on a platform of protecting the environment. What progress has been made since then?

For the first time in the history of the State Land Office, we have a program we call Enforcement and Accountability…Using the terms of the leases we have with oil and gas companies to ensure that they are properly plugging wells that are abandoned; shutting in wells that might have marginal productions; and doing environmental remediation and cleanup to the highest possible standard.

With that program, we have plugged over 400 wells successfully, not on the dime of New Mexico’s public schools or on New Mexico taxpayers, but on the industry dime. We saved New Mexico taxpayers, in not having to plug those wells, probably at least $40 million. We’ve remediated thousands of acres back to their original state when there have been spills or other environmental contamination on them, and in addition to our Enforcement and Accountability program, we’ve opened up our own environmental compliance office.

In the past, what had happened was, when we had a spill or remediation to do, we would go to the company for the environmental compliance plan. That’s problematic in a number of ways—there’s a conflict of interest there, it’s like a fox guarding the henhouse. Why would you go to the company whose responsibility it is to do the cleanup for the standards of that cleanup? We now have an internal environmental compliance office, and these folks have biological and environmental assessment backgrounds, and they are responsible for setting the standards for cleanup of these companies on state land.

What are some of your main concerns about the majority of the increased revenue coming from oil and gas extractions?

The first question that we have, and for me, as a former educator, is this revenue source is finite. There’s a lot of issues with it—it causes environmental conditions in places of production that lead to air that has pollutants, spills on the ground that contaminate soil…it’s a carbon producing industry, it is contributing to our worsening climate. There are probably limits going forward on demand for fossil fuels, and the resource itself is nonrenewable. As soon as they’re developed, they’re gone.

All of that leads us at the State Land Office to really try to predict and project what happens when we don’t have this record revenue, what happens when we have to look to other sources. We’ve been working on that for the past five years to diversify our revenue sources, to sustainable forms of energy, to renewable projects, to projects that solve community challenges like housing. While we know it’s not going to be a dollar-for-dollar transition, we are looking at every way to generate revenue for those public institutions with the anticipation that this boom will eventually be a bust.

Because New Mexico’s trust lands that public schools and universities benefit from largely consist of tribal lands stolen by the US Government, is there any specific way the State Land Office works to reconcile that history when profiting from it?

I don’t think there’s any way to reconcile it. The State Land Office and, under my administration, we acknowledge that it is stolen Indigenous land. I have conveyed that verbally when I have given presentations, we have conveyed that in written form. We have a Cultural Resources Office, and basically, they are tasked with a brand new cultural properties protection rule that we put into place, and it’s two parts: One is archaeological surveys to be done before any ground-disturbing activity happens, for the first time ever at the State Land Office.

But, it also has a tribal consultation component, where we are proactively reaching out to tribes. We’ve got a number of agreements, essentially [memorandums of understanding], with tribes around certain areas of the state, around certain activities tribes don’t want to see on public land.

In addition, we have offered every single tribe that has affinity in New Mexico a chance to repatriate land back to the tribe, and we have completed two tribal land exchanges with that same intent in mind to try and restore some of that tribal land. The first one we did was the Santa Ana Pueblo, and the second one was with the Fort Sill Apache Tribe.

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