Oil Stop

As environmentalists seek moratorium on new oil and gas extraction, judge allows business groups standing in lawsuit

The smells of burning chemicals linger in Carlsbad’s smog-filled air. A notable brownish-gray dust floats throughout it as a result of nearby oil and gas extractions. Fracking equipment sits in neighborhoods with natural gas pipelines running through and behind property lines. Abandoned wells leak while engines from increased truck traffic rumble through the city. This is how Jozee Zuniga, an EarthCare Youth United for Climate Crisis Action member, describes the reality for her and other residents.

“We’re just constantly burdened by the pollution,” Zuniga tells SFR. Being a part of YUCCA is “very important to her,” she says, because YUCCA is a “youth-led organization, and that’s huge when the youth have been left with this burden of cleaning up and taking care of an environment that we didn’t take part in destroying.”

Such environmental outrage led multiple individuals and youth and indigenous-led organizations to file a May 2023 lawsuit against the State of New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Legislature and other entities in the First Judicial District Court. Within the suit, plaintiffs argue the state is out of compliance with its constitution—as it relates to pollution created by unregulated oil and gas extraction permitting—which they say “guarantees New Mexicans a healthful and beautiful environment and mandates that the state control pollution to avoid despoiling its air, water and other natural resources.” The legal battle continues today.

In a hearing March 29, First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson allowed the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce to intervene in the case on the side of the state after attorneys Jeff Wechsler and Mark Barron argued the economic interests of both organizations would be impacted should injunctive relief be granted in the case.

“The oil and gas industry shouldn’t have any role in this case, but we respect the court’s decision,” Gail Evans, the lead counsel and attorney for fellow plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement following the hearing. “Fossil fuel companies are terrified they’ll lose their huge profits if we win this constitutional case and their involvement shows just how badly this lawsuit is needed. We’re eager to make our case on behalf of every New Mexico resident against the state and this greedy, polluting industry. We look forward to defending our constitutional rights in court.”

During the most recent legislative session, New Mexico passed a record $10.2 billion budget, roughly 40% of which came from rising oil and gas extraction royalties.

In a statement provided to SFR, Holly Agajanian, the governor’s chief general counsel, noted neither the governor nor any state agencies had taken a position on the industry motion to intervene.

“That said, the decision made by the court on Friday correctly and appropriately acknowledges that the state must balance a wide variety of interests when considering its rules and regulations concerning oil and gas development,” Agajanian says. “In this instance, the judge found that developers should have a seat at the table because the plaintiffs were seeking to enjoin development.”

Indeed, the environmentalists’ lawsuit seeks a moratorium on additional oil and gas permitting. More than 70,000 active oil and gas production sites currently operate in the state, Evans says.

“Not a single environmental or public health review has been done before those fracking permits have been issued, so this is just a massive failure on the part of the state and this is why people are in the position that they’re in that their landscapes, their health, the environment, the climate—it’s all being destroyed,” Evans tells SFR. “The state cannot continue to permit more and more pollution and damage. They first have to do something [such as] put in place a pollution control scheme.”

In her statement, Agajanian characterizes the legal push for a moratorium a result the litigants “have not been able to achieve through normal political processes. Instead of persuading legislators or agencies of their views, plaintiffs ask the court to override legislative judgment regarding what level of pollution control is consistent with the state’s interest in the use and development of its natural resources. It was for these reasons that the state moved to dismiss the complaints on all counts.”

Both the Lujan Grisham administration and the Legislature filed responses to the suit last summer asking for the case to be dismissed. In the case of the Legislature, attorney Tom Hnasko asks the court to dismiss the case or for judgment in the Legislature’s favor. The filing argues claims made from plaintiffs violate legislative immunity pursuant to the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, and the requested relief “seeks to confer to the judiciary the role of exercising legislative policy judgment,” among other points.

Lujan Grisham filed a motion alongside Secretary of Environment James Kenney and Secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Sarah Cottrell Propst to dismiss the case against them that argues the New Mexico Civil Rights Act precludes claims against individuals, and argues they can only be brought against public bodies.

A hearing for both motions is scheduled for April 12.

YUCCA member and Laguna Pueblo resident Jonathan Juarez says Lujan Grisham, who was selected to serve on the US Climate Alliance Executive Committee just weeks before the lawsuit was filed, must uphold her duty to protect New Mexicans and ensure a healthy and safe future for all, otherwise it is “paying lip service, and it’s really performative.”

“The governor can get on a national platform and say what she wants to about being a leader in addressing the climate crisis,” Juarez tells SFR, “but those of us that live on the frontlines and live with the everyday reality, we know the truth, and we see through that.”

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