New Mexico land boss ready to ‘dance’ with oil industry

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Stephanie Garcia Richard has taken her place as the head of what is arguably one of the state’s most powerful agencies, overseeing energy development on millions of acres of state trust land with the purpose of generating money to fund public education.

The challenge, she says, is balancing that pursuit with ensuring the state’s lands remain productive.

A former educator and three-term state lawmaker, Garcia Richard is the first woman to serve as commissioner of public lands. She acknowledges the oil and gas industry is the big money-maker, having contributed more than $850 million in lease payments, royalties and other fees during the last fiscal year.

Garcia Richard has sparked criticism with talk about possible regulatory reforms and increasing royalty rates. The Democrat knows some people grumble that she’s not qualified. She insists her experience in the classroom gives her the perspective needed to put children first when negotiating the best return on development.

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Garcia Richard recently met with oil executives to hear their views of how any changes in policy might affect their business.

“I think there’s a lot of room for working together because at the end of the day we have the same goals,” she told The Associated Press. “They want to make money on our resource and when they make money on our resource, we get money.”

What that arrangement will look like has yet to be determined, as Garcia Richard wants to develop ways to incentivize water recycling and conservation, methane emission reductions and other environmental protections.

“There’s that dance of figuring out what the negotiation is between what I want and what they want and I think the Land Office has a lot of levers at its disposal to be able to incentivize, put pressure where we need to,” she said.

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She’s also willing to push in other directions.

A native New Mexican, Garcia Richard has not been shy about renewable energy. She says there are parcels of trust land in eastern New Mexico where more wind farms can be built and places in the south for solar panels.

State politicians have long suggested that it could be a renewable energy mecca, but the dream has remained largely out of reach. Funneling electricity produced in remote areas of the sparsely populated state to major markets in the West has been complicated by the lack of transmission.

Garcia Richard believes it’s a matter of leadership.

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“Does anyone have a good fee structure in place? Do people have good transmission in place? Have people cracked the nut on storage? No,” she said. “There’s a void that New Mexico should fill.”

As the state’s top land manager, she admits she had no idea that she would be signing so much paperwork. From leases to a temporary approval for a food truck to operate on trust land in oil and gas country, reams of paperwork cross her desk every day.

She’s always cognizant that her perspective is different from her predecessors.

“First educator, first woman,” she says. “I see everything through those lenses and I think it informs the kind of commissioner that I will be.”

The historic nature of her win is on full display on the lower level of the agency’s headquarters in Santa Fe, where the photographs of the 24 men who preceded her line the wall. Her photo wasn’t up yet.

“I affectionately have nicknamed it the wall of men,” she jokes.

Her office is just as manly, with classic wood paneling reminiscent of the “Mad Men” era. That’s expected to change, she says.

In the meantime, a tiny figurine of Wonder Woman stands at the edge of her desk as a reminder.

“I want to make sure that I hear all sides but that I’m firm and bold and make good decisions on behalf of the land and the people of New Mexico,” she says.