U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce is continuing to push back against protests by environmental groups that are holding up federal leases of land for oil and gas development. Delay of the leases has also put on hold a $69.9 million payment that’s critical to state government ending its current fiscal year in the black.
“New Mexico is currently facing difficult financial decisions and a delayed receipt of these funds would certainly make the situation worse,” Pearce, R-N.M., wrote in a Tuesday letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Pearce requested that the BLM “complete responses to these protests as expeditiously as possible, and promptly provide payment to the State of New Mexico.”
The most recent analysis projects the state will end its current fiscal year on June 30 with $102 million in the bank — and that analysis is fluid. It’s also dependent on receiving the nearly $70 million from the BLM.
Lawmakers have already twice met to make cuts and sweep funds to help balance the fiscal year budget, which has been plagued by falling oil and gas prices. Gov. Susana Martinez has implemented a hiring freeze and is threatening furloughs and closing state parks, among other measures, to conserve cash.
Two budget experts in the state Legislature sent a letter to Pearce and other members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. on March 28 expressing concern about the situation. They wrote that delaying the BLM payment beyond the end of the current fiscal year could have a “significant, detrimental impact” on the state’s ability to pay its bills and bond rating.
The money the state would receive if the leases go through comes from a $146 million oil and gas lease sale near Roswell in September. BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said last week that the agency had completed its environmental assessments of the protests filed by Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity. There are “a couple more layers of review” by other federal agencies, but right now it looks as though the leases will be finalized and the state will receive its money by June, Hummel said.
Still, there’s no certainty of that until the formal process is complete.
Asked to comment on the substance and importance of its protest and the state budget situation, an official with Wild Earth Guardians expressed dissatisfaction with not being included in NMPolitics.net’s previous article on the topic, which focused on the impact on the state budget.
“If you want to do a real story about the federal oil and gas leasing program and its costs and benefits to the American public, I’d be happy to chat more, but if you just want a canned quote from an environmental foil to pair up with Pearce’s rhetoric, I’m not going to oblige you,” said Jeremy Nichols, the group’s climate and energy program director.
NMPolitics.net has also sent questions to the Center for Biological Diversity in an effort to report on the substance of the group’s protest and plans to write another article when the group provides responses.
Pearce, meanwhile, who is often at odds with environmental groups, asked the BLM in his letter to “review its processes to reduce frivolous protests, which threaten to harm the State of New Mexico.”
And in a news release announcing his letter to the BLM, Pearce said the state’s “children, elderly, disabled, as well as our health and education programs are being held hostage by these professional lawyer activists groups.”
“Through no fault of its own, the BLM is forced to delay payment of these funds,” Pearce said. “As a result, this will have a major impact on the stability and future of New Mexico’s budget.”