Lawsuit seeks to cancel oil and gas leases on New Mexico federal land

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

A lawsuit filed in federal court sought to overturn the lease of nearly 2 million acres of public land to the oil and gas industry in New Mexico and four other states since 2016.

The WildEarth Guardians, Western Environmental Law Center and Physicians for Social Responsibility filed the suit on Jan. 9 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The acreage was leased in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

The groups cited the federal Bureau of Land Management’s alleged failure to address the environmental impacts of oil and gas developments on the land in approving the leases.

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians said the federal government and administration of President Donald Trump denied the effects of oil and gas on climate change in its efforts to increase extraction on public land.

“The Trump administration is selling out America’s public lands to the oil and gas industry and fueling the climate crisis,” he said. “With this lawsuit, we’re taking a stand against this administration’s exploitation of public lands and abject climate denial.”

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Derrick Henry, spokesman for the BLM said the agency follows all federal laws when leasing land, and works to ensure public lands remain in good condition even after oil and gas activities. 

"The BLM's leasing decisions are lawful and fully compliant with the National Environmental Policy Act, despite the claims made in the lawsuit. In fact, these leasing decisions were informed by public input, as required by law, which was considered before issuing a final decision," Henry said.

"The BLM is helping America meets its growing energy needs while making sure the public lands remain in good shape, before and after leasing activities, consistent with its multiple use mandate.”

Greenhouse gases must be considered

Upstream oil and gas companies either pull hydrocarbons out of the ground, or directly assist those companies that do with goods and services.

In New Mexico, the groups looked to vacate two lease sales on Sept. 1, 2016 and Dec. 5, 2018 which saw 95 parcels leases on 55,205 acres, mostly in southeast New Mexico in Eddy and Lea counties.

READ:Trump's 'weakening' of federal law regulating oil and gas projects criticized

They also opposed seven sales in Colorado for 126 parcels on 82,976 acres between 2016 and 2019 and four in Montana for 199 parcels on 94,632 also between 2016 and 2019.

The suit also challenged one sale in Utah for 8 parcels on 7,478 acres in June 2017, and nine sales in Wyoming for 1,639 parcels on about 1.7 million acres.

The BLM failed to consider the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by oil and gas activities on the leased land, read the suit, arguing that federal public lands used for fossil fuel extraction contribute 24 percent such emissions in the U.S.

READ:Expected oil and gas growth may impact climate change; solutions sought

Such omissions also violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the suit argued, which requires federal agencies to analyze climate impacts when approving of oil and gas operations on public land.

“BLM, however, continues to recklessly lease large swaths of the American West to oil and gas development without comprehensively estimating the cumulative GHG emissions from this development and analyzing the severity of resulting climate impacts from the addition of thousands of tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere, as NEPA requires,” the lawsuit read.

Leases were approved despite the BLM “failing” to properly quantify direct and indirect, or downstream, and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from leased parcels and analyze the resulting climate impacts, read the lawsuit.

READ:Permian Basin jobs grow as oil and gas production booms in SE New Mexico

“Fracking leaks huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere, heating the climate and fueling massive health threats: deadly wildfires, flooding, damage to agriculture, and more,” said Barbara Gottlieb, environment and health director at Physicians for Social Responsibility. 

“We need to move beyond fossil fuels, and that means we need to stop leasing public lands for oil and gas extraction.”

'We simply can’t let this continue'

The groups won a court decision in March 2019 in a 2016 lawsuit that challenged more than 450,000 acres leased for oil and gas in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

READ:Wyoming company hopes to solve NM's oil and gas waste water dilemma

Shiloh Hernandez, staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center said the federal government continued to ignore the environmental impacts of oil and gas, despite the recent decision, in continuing to lease public land to the industry.

“We won in court once and we’ll win again,” Hernandez said. “The Trump administration is completely flouting the law and the courts. We simply can’t let this continue.”

The suit also pointed to the “acceleration” of oil and gas leasing of federal land, as part of the Trump administration’s agenda to make America energy independent, while denying climate change.

READ:Environmentalists demand oil and gas companies reduce emissions to address climate change

“The Trump administration is denying reality to appease its friends in the oil and gas industry,” said Becca Fischer, Climate and Energy Program attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “The thing is, climate denial is illegal. Under federal law, this administration can’t ignore or downplay science and facts.”

In a news release from WildEarth Guardians, the organization also suggested the BLM cease selling public lands to the industry for extraction operations, pointing to benefits to public health and safety in addition to protecting the environment.

A June 2019 report from the Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York suggested oil and gas production could lead to health impacts such as asthma, cancer and pre-term birth.

“This case isn’t just about defending our climate and public lands,” said Daniel Timmons, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “It’s about defending the law, which requires the federal government to account for and address the full environmental impacts of its actions, and that includes climate impacts.”

Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said any threat to increases oil and gas operations would cut funding for public services and education in New Mexico.  

He challenged the claims made in the lawsuit, pointing to industry data that showed methane intensity, or the emissions rate by facilities, had declined in recent years as production grew. 

"Activist groups will stop at nothing to derail the success story that’s putting New Mexico on the map and creating unprecedented opportunities for our state, even it means eliminating thousands of jobs from our economy, cutting vital funding for public schools, or shifting oil and gas production to other parts of the world," McEntyre said. "

"When we produce oil and gas in the southeast New Mexico and the United States, we’re producing it cleaner and safer than anywhere else on the world. Rather than protesting that fact, it should be celebrated and prioritized."

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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.