New lawsuit aims to stop federal fossil fuel leases in New MexicoActivists hope to stop the sale of fossil fuel leases in New Mexico's Greater Carlsbad region. Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Following a federal court ruling that invalidated government oil and gas leasing in Wyoming on climate change grounds in March, a new lawsuit filed earlier this week seeks to overturn petroleum leasing on public land in New Mexico due to climate impacts.

WildEarth Guardians sued the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. The suit challenges 210 oil and gas leases spanning nearly 70,000 acres in southeast New Mexico. WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit, alleges BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act by failing to adequately assess the cumulative climate impacts of the leases and failing to provide sufficient public participation in the leasing process.

The lease sales challenged in the suit occurred during 2017 and 2018 in the Greater Carlsbad region in the western part of the Permian Basin, the major oil and gas reserve that stretches across western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. According to a report from Oil Change International in January, unrestricted production in the Permian Basin through 2050 would result in nearly 55 billion tons of carbon pollution, contradicting the global aim to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

“Climate pollution from oil and gas production in the Greater Carlsbad region is just as bad as coal-fired power plants, yet the Bureau of Land Management continues to give industry a free pass to pollute,” said Becca Fischer, climate and energy program attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “This is where we take a stand for our climate and start keeping our fossil fuels in the ground.”

Fossil fuel production on federal lands accounts for about a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions. The Trump administration has vowed to increase fossil fuel leasing on federal lands and waters, including attempting to open protected waters offshore of Alaska and the Atlantic coast for drilling. A federal judge in Alaska blocked this attempt in March, though the administration is appealing. A federal judge in Montana handed the federal government another defeat in April, finding that the attempt to undo President Obama’s moratorium on coal leasing on public lands violated NEPA’s environmental review standard.

“There remains a fundamental disconnect between the scientific community’s understanding of the causes and likely impacts of climate change and the management of our public lands predominantly for fossil fuel energy production,” WildEarth Guardians said in its complaint.  

“Plain and simple, we’re holding the Bureau of Land Management accountable to safeguarding our climate,” said Daniel Timmons, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “It’s time for the agency to stop denying facts and reality and start doing its part to confront the climate crisis.”

“We can’t frack our way to a safe climate,” added WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director Jeremy Nichols. “This case is about holding our federal government accountable to the realities of our climate crisis and the need to rein in fossil fuel production and carbon emissions.”

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