A lawsuit challenged thousands of acres of public land leased to the oil and gas industry in southeast New Mexico, amid pressure from environmental groups in the state to see the federal government tighten restrictions on fossil fuel pollution.
The leases in question were granted to oil and gas companies in May 2021 after an auction by the Bureau of Land Management, under approval by the administration of former-President Donald Trump, but after President Joe Biden took office in January of the that year, the suit read.
These leases were approved without adequate environmental oversight, the suit read, as they did not follow regulations later updated by the Biden administration to consider the climate change impacts of oil and gas operations on the lands.
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The auction offered 6,850 acres in 37 parcels – six in Eddy County on 720 acres and 26 parcels on 5,220 acres in Lea County, records show.
Another 500 acres in Wise County, Texas were offered in the sale, along with 320 acres in Decatur County, Kansas.
In Oklahoma, 88 acres were sold on three parcels in Coal, Kingfisher and Major counties.
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In total, the sale netted $4.1 million, according to BLM data and the leases were issued by the BLM’s New Mexico office on May 12, 2021.
The lawsuit, which challenged only the New Mexico leases issued by the BLM and was filed in New Mexico U.S. District Court, called on the court to vacate the leases and require the agency adopt stricter environmental regulations for future sales.
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Kayley Shoup, organizer with Carlsbad-area group Citizens Caring for the Future, plaintiff in the suit, said air quality continued to decline in the Permian Basin region leading to health problems for the community.
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This was caused directly by oil and gas production, Shoup said, allowed by the continued use of public land by oil companies.
“Those of us living in Carlsbad continue to be alarmed by our ever-degrading air quality and environment in the region,” Shoup said. “Any direction you look in southeast New Mexico your eyes will be met with rigs, flares and pollution at a mass scale.”
Shoup said expanding oil and gas development and its environmental impacts threatened other industries like agriculture in the region.
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“Unmitigated oil and gas production on public lands here in New Mexico has already taken away our health and has stifled our ability to nurture industries such as agriculture,” she said. “We see leasing out our public lands for years to come as a direct attack on our ability to build a viable economy in our region in the future.”
Penny Aucoin, whose home south of Carlsbad was showered with a leaking produced water line, contaminating soil and leading to the death of animals on the Aucoin property, wrote in public comments submitted Nov. 19, 2020 that oil and gas production in the area risked the health of residents.
“You cannot expect oil and gas to police themselves,” read Aucoin’s written comments. “They have proven time and time again with accidents that could be avoided, leaks and equipment failures that could have been prevented if they had the proper oversight.”
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The suit also alleged the BLM unduly denied contentions filed by both national and statewide environmental groups, and local residents in New Mexico.
Feds deny New Mexicans’ fossil fuel concerns
In letters date Jan. 14, 2021, records show the BLM argued it was able to use past standards like resource management plans (RMP) and environmental impacts statements (EIS) despite development, at the time, of new regulations and that its analysis of the leases in question was adequate to move forward with the sale.
This was allowed, the BLM contended, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
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“Contrary to the Protesting Party’s assertions, the BLM may rely on an existing RMP-EIS to support the NEPA analysis for a new, proposed oil and gas action,” read a letter filed by the BLM to the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.
Similar letters were sent to Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardian and the National Wildlife Federation, records show.
“Contrary to the Protesting Party’s assertions, the BLM adequately considered potential impacts from the proposed leasing action and the impacts from development to the extent reasonably foreseeable,” read a BLM letter responding to WildEarth Guardians.
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The Biden administration approved more leases than Trump’s, despite commitments by the President to enact stronger regulations on oil and gas in the U.S. to address climate change, read a report from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Since Biden took office two years ago, the Department of the Interior issued 6,430 permits to drill on public lands, records show, compared to 6,172 permits under Trump in his first two years in office.
About 4,000 of those permits were issued by the BLM’s New Mexico Office, in the state that ranks second in the nation in oil and gas production, with more than half of that occurring on federal public land.
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Taylor McKinnon with the Center was critical of the President and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for “failure”, McKinnon said, to respond to warnings from the scientific community that continued oil and gas leasing was exacerbating climate change and extreme weather events like wildfires.
“Two years of runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership by President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland,” McKinnon said. “Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires phasing out fossil fuel extraction, but instead we’re still racing in the opposite direction.”
To prevent global warming, new fossil fuel developments must be stopped, according to a report from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
Without any new projects, the study showed by 2030 existing developments worldwide will produce 35 percent more oil than is consistent with avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming – a standard devised by the international community believed to create disastrous weather events.
“The president and Interior secretary have the power to avoid a climate catastrophe, but they need to change course rapidly,” McKinnon said. “Strong executive action can meet the climate emergency with the urgency it demands, starting with phasing out fossil fuel production on public lands and waters.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.