How the Oil and Gas Industry is Trying to Hold New Mexico’s Education System Hostage — High Country News — Know the West

Fossil fuel interest groups say keep drilling or the state education system will collapse.

Middle school students participate in the Future City New Mexico regional competition in Albuquerque. The program was sponsored in part by Sandia Labs and the National Nuclear Science & History Museum.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here with permission.

The oil and gas industry wants to play a word and picture matching game with you. Think of four images: a brightly colored backpack full of pencils, a smiling teacher with a tablet under her arm, a pair of glasses resting on a pile of pastel notebooks, and a sparkling school bus welcoming a young student on board.

“What does all of this have in common?” a April 6 Facebook post by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), requested. “They are powered by oil and natural gas! »

Here in New Mexico – the fastest warming and most water-stressed in the continental United States, where wildfires recently devoured more than 120,000 acres and remain unchecked – the oil and gas industry is coming in force to deepen the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. Their latest tactic: positioning oil and gas as the patron saint of education. Powerful interest groups have rolled out a months-long campaign to paint schools and the wellbeing of children as at risk if government officials infringe on fossil fuel production.

In a video spot example of this strategy, Ashley Niman, a fourth-grade teacher at Enchanted Hills Elementary School, tells viewers that the industry is what allows her to do her job. “Without oil and gas, we wouldn’t have the resources to provide an exemplary education to our students,” she says. “The partnership we have with the oil and gas industry makes me a better teacher.”

The video, from September last year, is part of an NMOGA public relations campaign called ‘Safer and Stronger’. This is one of many similar strategies that Guardian followed through social media, television and audio formats that employs a rhetorical strategy social scientists call the “fossil fuel saving framework”.

“What NMOGA and the oil and gas industry are saying is that we are holding New Mexico’s public education system hostage to our profit-driven interests,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director from the Western Environmental Law Center. “There is an implicit threat there.”

“There is an implicit threat there.”

Last year, New Mexico brought $1.1 billion mining leases on federal lands – more than any other US state. But the tides may turn for the fossil fuel industry as officials grapple with the need to halve greenhouse gas emissions this decade. By mid-April, the Biden administration had suspended all new oil and gas leases and the number of drilling permits on public lands. dropped.

Lucy Dadayan of the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center for the Guardian

In response, pro-industry groups are spreading what some pundits have called “the sky is falling” messages that make it seem like without oil and gas revenue, the state’s education system is stretched thin. of breath. NMOGA did not respond for comment.

Since February, NMOGA has flooded its social media pages with school-related motifs like the buses and books, but also with images of emptiness, abandonment classroom accompanied by reminders of how schools across the state are “drawing on oil and gas production on federal lands for more than $700 million in funding.” The elected officials repeated this framing. “This is a matter of critical importance to everyone, but especially to schoolchildren in New Mexico, who have suffered greatly during the pandemic,” state Rep. Yvette Herrell co-wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexicanin February.

But tax, budget and public education funding experts say it’s misleading to tie the federal lease break to a serious and immediate risk to public education.

“Any slight reduction resulting from breaks or other so-called ‘adverse’ actions would have no immediate effect on the school’s overall funding, let alone on students getting the services they need to recover. adverse effects on their learning of the pandemic,” said Charles Goodmacher, former director of government and media relations at the National Education Association (NEA), now a consultant. Selling the leases does not lead to immediate drilling, he said. Often companies sit on leases for months or years before production begins.

And it just so happens that New Mexico currently has a budget surplus of record production.

THE INDUSTRY TRIES TO CONVINCE New Mexicans who think the state’s public education system is entirely dependent on oil and gas are basing themselves on a hard truth: decades of deep tax cuts have indeed positioned fossil fuels as the thunder behind the Democratic-led New Mexico economy. In 2021, 15% from the state’s general fund came from royalties, rents, and other fees the Department of the Interior collects from mining on federal lands. Oil and gas activity on federal, state and private lands contributes approximately a third from the state’s general fund of $7.2 billion, as well as a third of its education budget.

Source: US Office of Natural Resources Revenue for the Guardian.

Public Lands Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, herself a former teacher, has been at the forefront of efforts to diversify New Mexico’s economy since being elected to manage the 13 million acres of state public land in 2018.

“When I ran, on my first campaign, we talked a lot about how a teacher really understands what every penny that desk makes means to a classroom.”

Garcia Richard is proud to be the first woman, Latina, and teacher to be elected to head the office, which oversees approximately $1 billion in revenue generation each year. Since 2019, she has launched a renewable energy office and an outdoor recreation office to raise money through these activities, although Garcia Richard doesn’t think the money will ever fully offset oil and gas revenue. . “I don’t want anyone to think that I have any idea that the revenue diversification strategies we’re pursuing right now are somehow worth a billion dollars.”

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, is another senior state official tasked with managing the state’s energy and economic transition.

Given the same geographic characteristics that make New Mexico the “land of enchantment,” the state is well positioned to become a national leader in solar energy, Balderas said. But four of the state’s major solar farms are seriously late.

Balderas, who accepted $49,900 oil and gas campaign contributions over seven election cycles, said a sudden disruption of new oil and gas leases, such as the general moratorium originally proposed by the Biden administration in January last year , would have an outsized impact on New Mexico’s most vulnerable.

“You would take away almost a third of the revenue we rely on to fund our schools, our roads and our law enforcement community,” he said. “I don’t think environmental activists really think about that perspective: how progressives get cleaner air, but then they push both Native Americans like Native American pueblos into further economic poverty.”

SOME OF THE RECEIVING SIDE oil and gas revenues underscore that not all educators and students accept fossil fuel industry money in public schools. Mary Bissell is an algebra teacher at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, who co-signed a letter in November, with more than 200 educators, calling on NMOGA to “stop using New Mexico’s teachers and children as excuses for more oil and gas development.”

Ms Bissell says that despite the lack of money from schools, many of her colleagues do not want money for oil and gas. “I’m not going to teach my kids how to find a slope based on fracturing,” she said of her math class. Bissell called NMOGA’s attempt to portray educators as a unified force beholden to oil and gas funding “disgusting.”

In some states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, state attorneys general have taken it upon themselves, as key law enforcement and consumer protection officials, to sue oil and gas companies for misleading consumers and investors about climate change through their marketing. Balderas’ office said it was not actively pursuing this strategy.

Seneca Johnson, 20, student leader with Youth United for Climate Action (Yucca), is from the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma. Johnson grew up in New Mexico and knows the state’s underfunded schools firsthand. “I remember in elementary school we had a list: bring three boxes of tissues or crayons,” she said of Chaparral Elementary School in Santa Fe. as students and as teachers, [you’re] buy supplies for the class.

“As students and as teachers, [you’re] buy supplies for the class.

Johnson recalls being told as a child that the schools she attended classroom second worst in the nation. If New Mexico’s education system is indeed so bad, she said, how can officials continue to think that accepting a funding structure that delivers such a poor outcome is a good idea?

“At the end of the day, the system we have now that’s paid for by oil and gas isn’t working, and we know it isn’t working,” Johnson said. “It’s the whole kind of ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ mentality,” she said, linking the industry’s condescending messages about its support for schools to a direct legacy of colonization.

“I don’t want to depend on this outside entity. I don’t want to have to depend on this faulty system. I want better for my children and their children and for my whole community.

Leanna First-Arai is a freelance writer who writes about the links between climate breakdown and economic and racial injustice. We welcome letters from readers. E-mail High Country News to [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to editor policy.

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global media collaboration boosting coverage of the climate story.

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