Will Obama Use The Monument Act To Shut Down Energy In New Mexico?

New Mexico is once again on the bottom of the list—or the top, depending on your perspective. Forbes recently announced the “death spiral” states. New Mexico was the worst “with 1.53 takers for every maker” (Forbes defines “takers” and “makers” this way: “A taker is someone who draws money from the government, as an employee, pensioner or welfare recipient. A maker is someone gainfully employed in the private sector”). It seems New Mexico can’t get a break from Washington. Instead of unleashing the state’s biggest single private sector employer, the essential job-creating giant is impeded at every opportunity.

And we wonder why the economy is teetering.

In New Mexico nearly 50% of the state revenue comes from oil-and-gas activity. More than 11,000 people are directly employed in the industry. Schools, hospitals, and other government functions are funded as a result of oil-and-gas receipts that go into the Severance Tax and Land Grant Permanent Funds. The state has other resources such as copper, rare earth elements, and uranium. Their extraction often faces such stiff opposition that companies interested in investing in New Mexico give up, or run out of money fighting for the right to access the resource, before they ever get past the exploration phase.

There are myriad ways obstructionists slow or stop energy projects.

My first experience with the obstructionist’s model was with the battle over Mount Taylor’s Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) designation. I spent several years with the residents of Grants, New Mexico, fighting for their right to the economic freedom the proposed uranium mines could have given them. All of Mount Taylor was declared a TCP. The original TCP was 660 square miles—though public involvement did reduce it slightly. As a result, proposed uranium mining has never happened. Katherine Slick, the state employee, under Governor Richardson, who spearheaded the activities that led to locking up the public lands, was rewarded with a new job in Washington, DC.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, I was engaged in the very public debate regarding the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the sand dune lizard. Rallies were held and hearings were attended in the Permian Basin region of New Mexico and Texas. Had the little lizard been listed, extraction and economic development in the oil-and-gas rich region could have been severely curtailed—not to mention ranching. Fortunately, six months ago the decision came down on the side of the citizens—something I am confident wouldn’t have happened had the people ignored the threat to their livelihoods.

Within the last twelve months, I’ve called attention to another area: the Organ Mountains and the adjacent Otero Mesa—which has known natural gas reserves. This part of south/central New Mexico has repeatedly been proposed for some federal designation that would prevent resource extraction, kick out ranching families who’ve held grazing permits for more than a century, and block recreational vehicle access. Thanks to Congressman Steve Pearce, the efforts have mostly been beaten back—though threatened again by National Monument requests that would be created by executive order and prevent Congressional review and local discussion.

Last week, a new threat was brought to my attention, and—surprise—once again, the proposed federal land grab has potential energy development. This time the “monument” in question has a high emotional quotient: the retirement of long-time New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (an ardent supporter of renewable energy and opponent of New Mexico’s rich natural resources). He has been unsuccessful in his attempts to get Congress to pass the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act before he retires at the end of 2012. A National Monument designation would be a reward for his efforts, a Bingaman bonus.

Why the sudden concern?

In late October, buried in election news, New Mexico’s two Senators, Bingaman and Udall, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to use his authority to establish both the Organ Mountains and Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, as National Monuments. The effort to establish the area around the Rio Grande Gorge as a National Monument is reported to have 100% support, “there’s no opposition”—which, of course, is not true (though Northern New Mexico doesn’t have a freedom-fighter Congressman like Pearce on its side).

Then, on December 14, in the midst of the fiscal cliff news and the public’s holiday preparations, it was announced that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar would “visit Taos on Saturday, December 15th to host a public meeting and listening session on exploring the best ways to protect the Río Grande del Norte in Northern New Mexico.” Salazar’s trip was in response to Senators Bingaman and Udall’s letter to establish the National Monument.

National monument designations were originally created for historical landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest as provided for in the Antiquities Act. However, because the monument designations can be made solely at the discretion of the Administration, they have been used, when the desired results cannot be achieved through Congress, as an excuse to reduce access and multiple-use of public lands.

The BLM website says the following about National Monuments: “The Antiquities Act of 1906 grants the President authority to designate national monuments in order to protect ‘objects of historic or scientific interest.’” Yet, the area proposed for (presumably the same as the NCA that Congress hasn’t passed) has no such features. Known as the Taos Plateau, it is a large swath of barren land; a vast flat plain with a thin layer of soil over volcanic flows. The proposed monument is to protect the Rio Grande Gorge’s narrow canyon, but it runs from just north of Santa Fe to the Colorado border where it is 25 miles wide. It conveniently sucks up all the BLM public land in the region.

While there are no features of “historic or scientific interest” in the proposed land grab, there are potential oil-and-gas resources that would provide economic benefit to the state and the residents in the form of good-paying jobs, local spending, and revenues for government functions, such as schools. The monument area lies between two known and very important natural-gas reserves: the San Juan Basin (which provides 15% of the natural gas used in America) and the Raton Basin. The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources calls the region a “frontier” area, saying: “Several of these frontier areas, although presently nonproductive and poorly explored, have many geologic characteristics in common with producing basins and hopefully represent a significant part of future oil-and-gas production.”

If New Mexico’s proposed National Monuments truly had public support, an executive-order end-run evading Congressional approval wouldn’t be needed. Senator Bingaman’s retirement and pending legacy provides obstructionists with the perfect excuse to ask for the monuments in his honor.

Since the national monument designation does not allow for public comment, unlike the Mount Taylor and sand dune lizard issues, what can American citizens concerned about the administration’s proclivity toward federal land grabs do? What can New Mexicans who want economic development for the state do?

We can let Ken Salazar know that there is opposition—even though the lacking-lead-time December 15 meeting may not have netted a public challenge. We can let him know that the public is watching. A recreational vehicle access advocacy group (Americans for Responsible Recreational Access) has set up an electronic letter to Secretary Salazar, which can easily be customized to include concerns over access to energy resources on public lands and the benefit from their use.

A National Monument designation for both the Organ Mountains in south/central New Mexico and the Northern New Mexico Taos Plateau would be like a going-away gift for retiring Senator Bingaman that would achieve his goals of locking up New Mexico’s energy resources and keep the state dependent on the federal government—funded by tax dollars from all Americans.

And the death spiral continues.


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