Lawsuit aims to defend climate and clean air from fracking in New Mexico’s Permian Basin

SANTA FE, NM.- Conservation groups led by citizens of Carlsbad, NM, filed suit today to overturn the Biden administration’s approval of nearly 6,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico.

Originally approved by the Trump administration, the contested leases were sold just days before President Biden took office and announced a pause on new federal oil and gas leases to protect the climate. Despite Biden’s promise, the US Department of the Interior officially approved the Trump-era lease on May 12, 2021.

By auctioning off these lands, the Home Office gave industry the right to explore and produce oil and gas, opening the door to massive amounts of climate and air pollution. Despite this, the agency has refused to disclose the cost of further oil and gas development and has refused to take steps to restrict or even prevent new development to protect people and communities.

“Those of us who live in Carlsbad remain concerned about our ever-deteriorating air quality and environment in the area,” said Kayley Shoup of Citizens Caring for the Future. “In any direction you look in southeastern New Mexico, your eyes will encounter derricks, flares, and large-scale pollution. This devastation can even be seen in space, as NASA recently identified a superemissive site just a few miles from Carlsbad. Unrestricted oil and gas exploration on public lands here in New Mexico has already robbed us of our health and stifled our ability to promote industries like agriculture. We view the leasing of 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. A future where inevitably the curtain on oil and gas exploration will be drawn once and for all.”

“Oil and gas companies are making record profits while offloading air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to the public,” said Rose Rushing, a Farmington-based attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The most marginalized communities in New Mexico are typically the hardest hit by the toxic legacy of the oil and gas industry in our backyards and will also suffer the most from climate change. Frontline communities are being forced to pay for oil and gas exploration with our health and climate stability. The science is clear: we must stop drilling for oil and gas if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.”

Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, challenges the Biden administration’s decision to uphold Trump-era leases. It targets the government’s failure to address the damage to climate and regional air quality from expanded oil and gas production.

“By going ahead full steam ahead with the January lease sale, the Bureau of Land Management violates its moral and ethical responsibilities to the public good and stewardship of land trusts, which are fundamental to the agency,” said Sister Joan Brown of New Mexico/El Paso Interreligious power and light. “The Governing Board must take seriously its responsibility to reduce climate pollution and health risks and to care for the sacred lands of New Mexico.”

Oil and gas exploration in the Permian Basin, one of the largest oil-producing regions in the world, is a huge source of air pollution and has led to an increase in smog in the region, particularly in the city of Carlsbad. It is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Permian oil and gas is a huge source of strong methane gas, and when it is burned, huge amounts of carbon are released.

Recent reports show that uncontrolled fracking in the Permian Basin will release more than 55 billion tons of carbon by 2050, exhausting 10% of the global carbon budget needed to limit global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius .

“While it’s shameful that President Biden isn’t delivering on his promise to suspend new oil and gas leases to protect the climate, it’s even more shameful that he’s sanctioned Trump-era leases,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and climate program director Energy at WildEarth Guardians. “For the climate, we need to stop selling our public lands to the oil and gas industry.”

Several analyzes show that climate pollution from the world’s already producing fossil fuel developments, when fully developed, will drive warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius. To avoid such warming, new investment in fossil fuel projects must be halted and production halted to keep up to 40% of already developed fields underground.

“Any expansion of fracking leases disproves climate science and promises more damage to frontline communities and vulnerable animals like smaller prairie chickens,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This lawsuit will hold the Biden administration accountable for its own climate, environmental justice and biodiversity goals.”

In 2022, the Biden administration agreed to reconsider millions of acres of oil and gas leases approved by the Trump administration. However, that agreement did not include the leases sold in New Mexico in January 2021.