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MON: Oil And Gas Drilling On Pace To Reach Highest Level In Years, + More

Associated Press, Charlie Riedel
Pumpjacks in Lovington, N.M.


US Drilling Approvals Increase Despite Biden Climate Pledge - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

Approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on U.S. public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president, underscoring President Joe Biden's reluctance to more forcefully curb petroleum production in the face of industry and Republican resistance.

The Interior Department approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. That includes more than 2,100 drilling approvals since Biden took office January 20.

New Mexico and Wyoming had the largest number of approvals. Montana, Colorado and Utah had hundreds each.

Biden campaigned last year on pledges to end new drilling on federal lands  to rein in climate-changing emissions. His pick to oversee those lands, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, adamantly opposed drilling on federal lands while in Congress and co-sponsored the liberal Green New Deal.

But the steps taken by the administration to date on fossil fuels are more modest, including a temporary suspension on new oil and gas leases on federal lands that a judge blocked last month, blocked petroleum sales in  the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline  from Canada.

Because vast fossil fuel reserves already are under lease, those actions did nothing to slow drilling on public lands and waters that account for about a quarter of U.S. oil production.

Further complicating Biden's climate agenda is a recent rise in gasoline prices to $3 a gallon or more in many parts of the country. Any attempt to limit petroleum production could push gasoline prices even higher and risk souring economic recovery from the pandemic.

"He's walking the tightrope," said energy industry analyst Parker Fawcett with S&P Global Platts, noting that Keystone and ANWR came without huge political costs because they were aimed at future projects.

"Those easy wins don't necessarily have huge impacts on the market today," Fawcett said. "He is definitely backing off taking drastic action that would rock the market. ... What you're going to see is U.S. oil production is going to continue to rebound."

Haaland has sought to tamp down Republican concern over potential constraints on the industry. She said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last month that there was no "plan right now for a permanent ban."

"Gas and oil production will continue well into the future and we believe that is the reality of our economy and the world we're living in," Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn.

Interior officials declined further comment on permits issued under Biden.

Under former President Donald Trump, a staunch industry supporter, the Interior Department reduced the time it takes to review drilling applications from a year or more in some cases, to just a few months.

Companies rushed to  lock in drilling rights before the new administration. And in December, Trump's last full month in office, agency officials approved more than 800 permits — far more than any prior month during his presidency.

The pace dropped when Biden first took office, under a temporary order that elevated permit reviews to senior administration officials. Approvals have since rebounded to a level that exceeds monthly numbers seen through most of Trump's presidency.

The data obtained by AP from a government database is subject to change because of delays in transmitting data from Interior field offices to headquarters.

If the recent trends continue, the Interior Department could issue close to 6,000 permits by the end of the year. The last time so many were issued was fiscal year 2008, amid an oil boom driven by crude prices that reached an all-time high of $140 per barrel that June.

Decisions on about 4,700 drilling applications remained pending as of June 1, which means approvals are likely to continue at a heavy pace as officials work through a backlog left over from the Trump administration, said Fawcett, the industry analyst.

Environmentalists who share the administration's goals on climate have expressed growing frustration as prospects for a ban on drilling fade. They contend the administration could take executive action that would stop further permits but has caved to Republican pressure.

"Every indication is they have no plans of actually fulfilling their campaign promise," said Mitch Jones, policy director for the environmental group Food & Water Watch. "The result of that will be continued and increasing development of fossil fuels on public lands, which means more climate change."

Economists and other experts have been skeptical about how much impact a permit ban would have. Companies simply could shift onto private and state lands and keep drilling, said University of Chicago deputy dean Ryan Kellogg.

The administration's defenders say it's being pragmatic in the face of a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and questions over whether the government could legally stop drilling on leases already sold to companies.

That's meant forgoing a drilling ban in hopes of getting bipartisan support for a huge infrastructure package that includes clean energy incentives and other measures to address global warming.

"It's the long game. ... You've got to appease some of those oil and gas state senators," said Jim Lyons, who was deputy assistant Interior secretary under Barack Obama and is now an environmental consultant. "It means jobs back home for thousands of workers. You can't just pull the plug overnight."

Las Cruces Area In Clean-Up Mode Day After Powerful StormsAssociated Press

Residents in Las Cruces were picking up the pieces Monday, a day after a powerful storm left a trail of toppled trees, washed out roads and downed power lines.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports crews around the city are hauling away massive trees and other debris.

The Sunday storm originated in the Roswell and Clovis areas but then picked up steam over the Sacramento Mountains, according to the National Weather Service. The result was a massive storm system that brought powerful winds and rain. It walloped Las Cruces sometime after 7 p.m. before moving on to Texas.

Winds around southern New Mexico, from Las Cruces to Santa Teresa, were as high as 80-90 miles per hour (129-145 kilometers per hour).

The weather has also led the New Mexico Department of Transportation to shut down US 70 at San Augustin Pass. The stretch from NASA Road to the entrance of White Sands Missile Range is expected to stay closed most of the day.

It wasn't just rain and wind wreaking havoc in places. A dust storm also hit east of Lordsburg Sunday night, causing a pile-up on I-10. Hail was reported south of Cloudcroft, Alamogordo and in west El Paso.

Navajo Nation Reports 2 New COVID-19 Cases, Another 3 DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation reported two new cases of the coronavirus on Sunday and three more deaths.

The figures released by the Navajo Department of Health bring the total number of cases on the reservation to almost 31,096 since the pandemic began. The death toll is 1,361.

The Navajo Nation recently relaxed restrictions to allow visitors to travel on the reservation and visit popular attractions like Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley. The reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

While cases are down, Navajo leaders are urging residents to continue wearing masks and get vaccinated.

"The Delta variant continues to spread across the country, mainly among people who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19," said tribal President Jonathan Nez. "Please continue to wear a mask in public and continue to pray for our people."

After Branson Flight, Virgin Galactic Slumps On Stock Sale - By Alex Veiga, AP Business Writer

Virgin Galactic shares veered sharply lower Monday after the spaceflight company said it's made arrangements to sell up to $500 million in stock.

The disclosure comes a day after founder Richard Branson briefly rocketed into space aboard Virgin's winged space plane for the first time in what was the company's highest-profile flight yet as it looks to begin taking up paying customers on expensive joy rides next year.

The stock closed Monday down 17.3%. Trading in the stock was briefly halted shortly after the market opened. Virgin is still up 71.5% so far this year.

The company didn't reveal the timing of the proposed stock sale, but said it plans to use the net proceeds to fund manufacturing, develop its spaceship fleet and make infrastructure improvements, among other expenses, according to a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 apiece. The company received clearance from the Federal Aviation Commission last month to begin taking paying customers into space from its facilities in New Mexico, something the company has said it is looking to start doing next year.

The launch with Branson marked the 22nd test flight of Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity space plane. The company has planned at least two more space test flights this year.

Branson had teased a major announcement about ferrying more people to space following his flight, which some expected would be an announcement about Virgin Galactic reopening ticket sales. Instead, upon his return to Earth Sunday, Branson announced a sweepstakes drawing for just two seats on a Virgin Galactic jaunt. That announcement was "likely less than what investors were hoping for," analysts at Canaccord Genuity wrote in a research note Sunday.

The analysts, who have a "Buy" rating on the stock, say the reopening of ticket sales is going to be a key barometer for assessing the company's future customer backlog beyond the roughly 600 people who have already signed up for space flights.

"While the full power of the Virgin brand was on display, and Sir Richard's knack for showmanship is clearly a powerful asset for the company, the challenge now will be for the company to maintain the momentum and establish a flight plan in 2022 that can demonstrate a repeatable and increasing commercial launch cadence," the analysts wrote.

Branson edged out billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of rival space tourism company Blue Origin, as the first person to blast off in his own spaceship. Bezos, his brother and two other people are set to go up on a Blue Origin rocket on July 20.

Blue Origin has yet to sell tickets to the public. It's waiting for Bezos' flight before announcing its ticket prices.

Virgin's other rival, SpaceX, plans to take tourists on more than just brief, up-and-down trips just outside the Earth's atmosphere. The company, which is already launching astronauts to the space station for NASA and building moon and Mars ships, plans to ferry customers into orbit around the Earth for days, with seats costing well into the millions. The company's first private flight is set for September.

Billionaire Richard Branson Reaches Space In His Own Ship - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Marcia Dunn Associated Press

Swashbuckling billionaire Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday, bringing astro-tourism a step closer to reality and beating out his exceedingly richer rival Jeff Bezos.

The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space-tourism company reached an altitude of 53.5 miles over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and witness the curvature of the Earth — and then glided back home to a runway landing.

"The whole thing, it was just magical," a jubilant Branson said on his return aboard the gleaming white space plane, named Unity. 

The brief, up-and-down flight — the space plane's portion took only about 15 minutes, or about as long as Alan Shepard's first U.S. spaceflight in 1961 — was a splashy and unabashedly commercial plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.

Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos, the richest person on the planet, by nine days. He also became the second septuagenarian to go into space. Astronaut John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.

Bezos sent his congratulations, adding: "Can't wait to join the club!" — though he also took to Twitter a couple of days earlier to enumerate the ways in which be believes his company's tourist rides will be better.

With about 500 people watching, including Branson's family, Unity was carried aloft underneath a twin-fuselage aircraft. Then, at an altitude of about 8 1/2 miles, Unity detached from the mother ship and fired its engine, reaching more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, as it pierced the edge of space. 

Spectators cheered, jumped into the air and embraced as the rocket plane touched down on Earth. Branson pumped his fists as he stepped out onto the runway and ran toward his family, bear-hugging his wife and children and scooping up his grandchildren in his arms.

Mike Moses, a top executive at Virgin Galactic, said that apart from some problems with the transmission of video images from inside the cabin, the flight was perfect, and the ship looked pristine.

"That was an amazing accomplishment," former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a one-time commander of the International Space Station, said from the sidelines. "I'm just so delighted at what this open door is going to lead to now. It's a great moment."

Virgin Galactic conducted three previous test flights into space with crews of just two or three. 

The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways wasn't supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

Branson denied he was trying to outdo Bezos.

Branson's other chief rival in the space-tourism race among the world's richest men, SpaceX's Elon Musk, came to New Mexico to watch and congratulated Branson for a "beautiful flight."

Bezos' Blue Origin company intends to send tourists past the so-called Karman line 62 miles above Earth, which is recognized by international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space.

But NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 50 miles up.

The risks to Branson and his crew were underscored in 2007, when a rocket motor test in California's Mojave Desert left three workers dead, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic rocket plane broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.

Ever the showman, Branson insisted on a global livestream of the Sunday morning flight and invited celebrities and former space station astronauts to the company's Spaceport America base in New Mexico. R&B singer Khalid performed his new single "New Normal" — a nod to the dawning of space tourism — while CBS "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert served as master of ceremonies.

Before climbing aboard, Branson, who has kite-surfed the English Channel and attempted to circle the world in a hot-air balloon, signed the astronaut log book and wisecracked: "The name's Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh-one. License to thrill."

But asked afterward whether he is planning any more adventures, Branson said he will "definitely give it a rest for the time being" because "I'm not sure it would be fair to put my family through another one." He said he thinks he holds the record for being pulled out of the sea five times by helicopter.

Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 apiece. And upon his return to Earth, Branson announced a sweepstakes drawing for two seats on a Virgin Galactic jaunt. Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos' flight before announcing its ticket prices.

Kerianne Flynn, who signed up in 2011 to fly with Virgin Galactic, had butterflies ahead of the launch Sunday.

"I think there's going to be nothing like going up there and looking back down on the Earth, which is what I think I'm most excited about," she said. She added: "Hopefully the next generations will be able to explore what's up there."

Blue Origin and Musk's SpaceX both fly Apollo-style, using capsules atop rockets, instead of an air-launched, reusable space plane.

SpaceX, which is already launching astronauts to the space station for NASA and building moon and Mars ships, plans to take tourists on more than just brief, up-and-down trips. Customers will instead go into orbit around the Earth for days, with seats costing well into the millions. The company's first private flight is set for September.

Musk himself has not committed to going into space anytime soon.

Navajo Nation's Largest Casino Prepares To Reopen To Public - Associated Press 

The Navajo Nation's largest casino is preparing to reopen for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. 

The Twin Arrows Resort Casino east of Flagstaff has been closed since March 2020. Officials are planning to reopen Monday.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez recently signed legislation that allows visitors to travel on the reservation and visit popular attractions like Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley. The action paved the way for Twin Arrows to reopen.

The casino will have limited hours and a 50% occupancy level to start. Casino and hotel patrons will be required to wear masks and have their temperatures checked. Smoking won't be allowed inside, and the buffet won't be open.

The number of newly reported coronavirus cases on the reservation has remained relatively low. The tribe on Saturday reported 13 additional cases and no additional deaths. 

Still, tribal leaders have urged residents of the reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to be cautious, wear masks and get vaccinated.

Police Investigate Homicide At Albuquerque Apartment Complex - Associated Press

Police in Albuquerque are investigating a homicide on the city's southeast side.

They said officers responded around 5 p.m. Saturday to a shooting at an apartment complex.

Police found a man who had been shot. 

He was transported to the hospital where he died from his injury. 

The name and age of the victim haven't been released yet.

Police said it's still unclear what led up to the shooting.

There was no immediate word of any suspects in the case.

2 Shot, 1 Fatally In Albuquerque; Officer Slightly Injured - Associated Press

Shots fired across a downtown Albuquerque street killed one person and wounded another early Saturday and a police officer driving through the area was slightly injured, apparently by glass fragments when a bullet hit his vehicle's windshield, police said.

No identities or information on a possible motive were released and no immediate arrest was made. The wounded person was in stable condition, police said.

Police appealed to the public for information on the suspect or suspects. They also asked business owners to provide surveillance video of the 2:30 a.m. shooting.

The officer was "in good spirits, but obviously shaken up from the situation," Police Chief Harold Medina said. "We are very fortunate he was not seriously injured." 

A multi-agency task force will investigate the incident, police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos Jr. said in a statement.

University Of New Mexico Won't Require COVID-19 VaccinationsAssociated Press

The University of New Mexico will continue to encourage that students, faculty and staff get vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus in August for the fall semester but no longer plans to require it.

University President Garnett Stokes said in a campuswide email that vaccinations are key to stopping the spread of the coronavirus and that the university is working toward a 100% vaccination rate.

However, the vaccine remains under emergency use authorization by the federal government, the university noted in a statement Thursday.

The university previously proposed a vaccine requirement and posted a draft policy on its website.

"After more than a year of mostly remote learning and working, mask mandates and testing" the university community views its approaching full return to campus "with a sense of optimism and renewed purpose," the statement issued Thursday said.

UNM officials continue to urge those who are not vaccinated to continue to wear a mask, the statement said.

New Mexico GOP Seeks Legal Intervention On $1.75B Budget Row - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Republican lawmakers in New Mexico are asking the state attorney general to weigh in on a spending dispute over $1.75 billion in federal pandemic relief aid.

GOP leadership in a letter sent Thursday asked New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, to issue a legal opinion declaring the funds must be allocated by the Legislature to protect the body's fiscal authority.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says her administration must distribute the money because of the way Congress passed the pandemic relief bill.

The Legislature allocated money earlier this year, but Lujan Grisham used her veto power to effectively bring the money under discretionary control by her office.

Republican lawmakers took issue.  They, along with one vocal Democratic senator, signed a petition that called for an extraordinary legislative session to be convened to override the governor's veto and bring the funds back under the Legislature's control. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate did not sign on.

"Standing on principle isn't always popular," Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat, said on Twitter in response to a  news article. "Was easy for my Dem colleagues to challenge (the) power of (former Republican Gov. Susana) Martinez. Such a fair weather commitment to the law."

Democrats sued Martinez in 2017 over her use of veto power.