A federal lawsuit could overturn multiple oil and gas drilling permits issued under the administration of President Joe Biden, who during his campaign vowed to crack down on pollution from the fossil fuel industry but was since criticized for not taking strong enough action.
Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity jointly filed the suit in U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia Wednesday against the U.S. Department of the Interior and its sub-agency the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees onshore oil and gas operations on public land throughout New Mexico.
The suit questioned all applications to permit drilling (APDs) issued by the federal government between Jan. 21, 2021 and May 31 in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico.
The suit also questioned APDs issued in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin during the same time.
In total, 3,535 APDs were included in the lawsuit.
APDs are needed by oil and gas operators to begin drilling for crude oil or natural gas once such a facility is completed.
The BLM’s Carlsbad Field Office in the Permian Basin approved 2,721 of the permits in the suit, while the Roswell Field Office in the northern part of the region approved five APDs.
Another 809 APDs were approved by BLM field offices in the Powder River Basin, the suit read, and all of the permits questioned in the suit accounted for about 74 percent of approvals during Biden’s first 16 months in office.
The suit alleged the BLM failed to adequately provide environmental analysis (EA) for the APDs that took into account their impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change.
The agency also did not properly account for the impacts on endangered species brought on by the drilling approvals or on local communities.
“In its EAs for all the challenged APD approvals, BLM failed to take a hard look at greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts –– particularly cumulative emissions and impacts, including the aggregate emissions and impacts of the federal fossil fuel program nationwide,” the suit read.
“The BLM failed to take action to define and prevent unnecessary and undue degradation of public lands caused by the cumulative impacts from GHG emissions and climate change.”
Plaintiffs argued recent accepted scientific research showed GHGs were a driver of climate change and were primarily emitted by the fossil fuel sector.
About 85 percent of GHG emissions come from the production of oil, gas and coal, read the suit, and the federal government must include analysis of such impacts in its permit approvals.
The lawsuit called on the court to rescind the permits, and declare them in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and several other federal environmental laws.
“BLM’s failure to take action necessary to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation in the context of climate impacts is arbitrary and capricious agency action, an abuse of discretion, and action without observance of procedures required by law,” read the suit.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director said despite Biden’s claims that his administration would address climate change and curb environmental pollution, thousands of drilling approvals would only further degrade public lands and waters.
“The Biden administration is literally drilling away the climate,” he said. “Today’s lawsuit is about enforcing the reality that more oil and gas extraction only stands to fuel the climate crisis, contrary to the promises of President Biden.”
Kyle Tisdel, climate and energy program director with the Environmental Law Center said the federal oil and gas program makes up about 10 percent of annual U.S. GHG emissions.
He said the federal government and Biden should live up to its promises and take meaningful action against pollution.
“While President Biden has acknowledged the urgency of this crisis, it is time for action to align with rhetoric,” Tisdel said.
“The Bureau of Land Management has admitted that continued oil and gas exploitation is a significant cause of the climate crisis, yet the agency continues to recklessly issue thousands of new oil and gas drilling permits, violating its duty to prevent unnecessary and undue degradation of public lands.”
The latest suit came after environmental groups earlier this month sued to reverse thousands of federal oil and gas land leases approved by the BLM government since 2016, including thousands of acres in New Mexico.
It also came as Biden urged oil and gas refineries to increase their capacity and lower costs for Americans grappling with record-high gas prices averaging $5 a gallon nationwide.
The high price of gasoline was tied to record-high oil prices, with domestic crude oil trading at $116 a barrel as of Thursday.
The spike was brought on by increased demand as COVID-19 business and travel restrictions were lifted and Russia, the world’s second-largest oil producer, was removed from the international market following its invasion of Ukraine, disrupting global supplies.
Biden argued oil companies had broad enough profit margins and that “during a time of war” they must protect American consumers by working to lower energy costs by increasing fuel supplies.
In response, American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers said refineries were operating “at or near capacity” and that the Biden administration’s oil and gas policies thus far, such as its halt on new federal oil and gas land leases, were to blame for compounding financial burdens on the industry.
“While we appreciate the opportunity to open increased dialogue with the White House, the administration’s misguided policy agenda shifting away from domestic oil and natural gas has compounded inflationary pressures and added headwinds to companies’ daily efforts to meet growing energy needs while reducing emissions,” Sommers said in a statement.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.