Groups sue EPA, BLM over fracking, waste

James Fenton
Environmental groups that protested the planned lease sale of oil and gas leases in the Greater Chaco region in 2015 are now challenging the federal government's plans to allow oil and gas development in the Santa Fe National Forest.

FARMINGTON – Two coalitions of environmental groups filed lawsuits this week challenging the federal government's plans to allow oil and gas development in the Santa Fe National Forest, and to call for new rules over the disposal of water produced from hydraulic fracturing.

A suit filed today calls for tighter rules by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prevent earthquakes and contamination of drinking water sources by the oil and gas industry.

The suit was filed by the Durango,Colo.-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, and out-of-state or national environmental groups including the  Environmental Integrity Project, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks and the Responsible Drilling Alliance. The suit names EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as the defendant.

The suit says the EPA's regulations in current form "are outdated, contain generic provisions that do not specifically address the modern oil and gas industry, and fail to adequately protect against potential harm to human health and the environment resulting from oil and gas wastes."

Those wastes, the suit argues, "can contain harmful constituents ranging from heavy metals to hydrocarbons to naturally occurring radioactive materials."

In a press release, Dan Olson, the San Juan Citizens Alliance's executive director, said the EPA was three decades late in issuing rules over waste disposal, and oil and gas operations.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance was also a plaintiff in another suit filed Tuesday with other environmental groups, including the Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, Amigos Bravos, WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club, with attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center. That suit challenged the Obama administration's plan to allow horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing operations in the Santa Fe National Forest.

"As an organization representing hundreds of families living in close proximity to oil and gas operations, we see not only the physical pollution, but also the psychological toll that oil and gas waste exacts on communities," Olson said. "That the EPA is 30 years overdue in creating common-sense rules for managing toxic waste from oil and gas operations is a cause of great concern for everyone living near these sources of improperly regulated industrial pollution."

The legal action, which focuses on 13 oil and gas lease parcels on about 20,000 acres of forest land, named the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as federal defendants.

According to court documents, the challenged leases would expand oil and gas development into previously undeveloped areas of forest land on the west side of the Jemez Mountains north of Cuba and near the San Pedro Parks Wilderness, and cause "a great risk of significant environmental and public health impacts due to the intensity of development ... including the contamination of surface and groundwater supplies, the emission of hazardous air pollutants and potent greenhouse gasses as well as the potential to threaten the area's wilderness value."

In 2014, the groups protested the planned lease sale by the BLM and the Forest Service of more than 20,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the forest and the Greater Chaco region in 2015, citing complaints that the leases should be deferred until the BLM completes its Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement for the region. The RMP was last issued in 2003, before current technologies of horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing became commonplace, which WELC attorney Kyle Tisdel said in a press release amounts to the federal government rubber-stamping oil and gas development in the region without adequate consideration of the potential impacts.

"We're seeing the same intellectually dishonest techniques here from the administration as those used to green-light unstudied fracking in the Greater Chaco region," Tisdel said. "This is a clear attempt to circumvent meaningful environmental review for fossil fuel extraction on our public lands in northern New Mexico, consequences be damned. Our conscience demands we step in to stop this."

But John Roe — engineering manager with Dugan Production Corp., a Farmington-based independent gas company that has operated in the San Juan Basin since 1959 — said the claims in the lawsuits against the industry couldn't be further from the truth and lack scientific evidence to support their claims.

"It's mind boggling," Roe said. "(The environmental groups) put a whole lot of words in there that are catchy for somebody who doesn't know better."

The federal regulations are not as antiquated as the groups would like people to believe, he said, since the industry has been hydraulically fracturing wells for about 60 years and drilling horizontal wells for about 20 years.

"There's been over 100,000 wells drilled in New Mexico, and almost every one of them have required a stimulation of some sort," Roe said. "There's not been one instance in New Mexico or anywhere of groundwater contamination (caused by oil and gas drilling). Maybe there's an instance of water spillage, not because of the frack job but on sloppy handling at the surface. These lawsuits are overblown."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.