There’s been a good deal of controversy over the New Mexico Legislature’s accomplishments and failures on energy and conservation measures during the 2023 regular session. Let us agree that there were both—accomplishments and failures.
Good Democrats disagree over priorities for measures that would improve water regulation, promote clean energy, and penalize waste. Also over proposals for a “green amendment” to the constitution or tapping the State’s rich geothermal resources.
The array of energy proposals and conservation measures is broad, often involving complex incentives and regulatory processes on the way to a better energy future for New Mexico. Blue Review readers seeking more detail and discussion should look into nonpartisan organizations whose members are actively engaged in shaping the legislative approaches to energy overhaul—among them, the Sierra Club (https://www.riograndesierraclub.org/central-new-mexico), 350 New Mexico (https://350newmexico.org), and Retake our Democracy-(https://retakeourdemocracy.org).
One simple and effective measure introduced by Bernalillo County Representative Debra Sariñara (HD 21) in league with Santa Fe Rep. Tara Lujan was handled so expertly that the legislature passed it in time that the governor’s pen was not even required for making it law.
Rep. Sariñara’s HB 95 (2023) formally established the duty of the Commissioner of Public Lands to create and maintain an Office of Renewable Energy in the State Land Office (SLO), and passed the House 48 to 17 just after the session’s midpoint; the Senate, 27 to 8 a full 10 days before the close of the session. Because the bill passed so early and the governor did not return it with her “objections” or a veto, it became “law without signature” in compliance with the state constitution at Art. IV, Sec. 22.
Is the bill important? Yes. It is true that Commissioner of Public Lands Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard has already created an office in the SLO—an administrative entity that reported generating $12 million in Fiscal Year 2022. However, those who can remember this state under the veto pen and horrendous policies of the last Republican governor, will appreciate the importance of institutionalizing a division in law whose purpose is to focus on renewable energy.
Under Commissioner Garcia Richard, the SLO’s Office of Renewable Energy reported 39 active long-term renewable energy leases—27 of them for wind generation and 12 for solar projects. In addition, the SLO reported having 33 applications under review at the time of the session.
Even before the 56th Legislature’s first session, the SLO had tripled renewable energy leased on state trust lands between 2019 and 2022, bringing renewable energy production to approximately 1,200 total megawatts on state trust lands, up from approximately 400 megawatts when Commissioner Garcia Richard took office. The State Land Office awarded 11 wind leases totaling 147,684 acres of state trust land to Pattern SC Holdings LLC in 2022, which placed the highest and best bid on each lease. The Pattern project was expected to be three times larger than the then-current largest wind farm in New Mexico, and to be the largest wind energy project in the Western hemisphere.
According to the SLO, the Pattern Energy leases for the Western Spirit Wind and Sun Zia Wind projects are projected to bring in a minimum of $360 million in direct lease payments over the life of the projects, and the NextEra Buena Vista Energy Center solar project is projected to earn a minimum of $12.5 million over its lifespan. Revenue from renewable energy activity on state trust land is deposited in the land maintenance fund, 94% of which directly benefits public schools.
The SLO generates funds for the State by leasing state trust land—nine million surface and 13 million mineral acres—across every one of the State’s 33 counties. The land is leased for a multitude of purposes, including oil and gas production, agriculture, hunting, recreation and grazing, as well as production of renewable energy. The SLO surpassed the $1 billion mark in generating funds for State public institutions in 2019 and earned over $2 billion in Fiscal Year 2022.
Those successes could disappear in the blink of an eye if the office were not established in law, as they now are. With HB 95, it would take much more discussion and debate and the resolve to amend the statute to remove the obligation to maintain the office.
It’s likely the State of New Mexico could do better regarding where and how we get our energy, how we penalize and reward energy producers, where we find our resources, and how we conserve them. Meantime, however, Rep. Sariñara’s HB 95 is a step in the right direction.