WildEarth Guardians

A Force for Nature

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Representative Deb Haaland’s nomination by President Biden to lead the Interior Department represents an historic opportunity to drive the systemic change the natural world, our climate, and our country so desperately need.

If confirmed, Haaland—an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo—would be the first Indigenous person to run any Cabinet-level department in the history of the United States.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held hearings to consider Representative Haaland’s nomination on February 23rd and 24th, and the full U.S. Senate could vote any time after that, so we’re asking you to contact both of your senators today.

Unfortunately, Biden’s most historic Cabinet nomination could also be his most imperiled. That’s because senators in the back pocket of the dirty fossil fuel industry simply don’t want a climate justice activist and protector of public lands at the reins of the Interior Department.  Which is why we’re asking you—imploring you—to speak out on behalf of Haaland’s confirmation today.

Representative Haaland is a steadfast champion of bold climate action, environmental justice, Tribal rights, and protection of public lands and endangered wildlife.

In Congress, Haaland has been at the forefront of issues central to the climate and nature crises that the Interior Department must address. The Interior Department must stop the plundering of public lands, protect endangered species, implement policies that nurture an ethic of wildlife coexistence, protect 30% of all lands by 2030, and expand and deepen protection of national parks, monuments, and cultural sites.

Representative Haaland is exactly the visionary leader America needs to guide the Interior Department toward justice, equity, conservation, and environmental protection at this pivotal point in history. Her bold vision to address the nature and climate crises is precisely why some senators—and the resource exploiters bankrolling their election campaigns—adamantly oppose her leading the Interior Department.

They’re saying she’s too radical. But Haaland is merely committed to the bold and just path of transitioning our nation off our dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

Confirmation of Representative Haaland to be Interior Secretary would be a monumental step forward for Indigenous rights, climate action, environmental justice, and protection of public lands and threatened wildlife. In these times we need bold leadership, so please join me and urge your senators to support and confirm Representative Haaland to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior.

It’s another victory for the climate that we couldn’t have won without your support!

This week, a federal court ruled the U.S. Office of Surface Mining illegally approved an expansion of a massive coal mine in Montana. The judge issued a stinging rebuke, finding the agency inappropriately ignored the climate costs of more coal and more carbon pollution.

It’s a big win, but we still have work to do. Sign our petition today to ensure President Biden follows through with bold action to keep dirty coal in the ground and ensure a just transition.

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit we filed with our partners at the Western Environmental Law Center and Montana Environmental Information Center. It underscores the need for President Biden to make federal coal reform an absolute priority.

The president recently issued a landmark Executive Order committing the federal government to bold climate action. While that order paused new oil and gas leasing on public lands, it gave coal a free pass—even though coal mining on public lands remains a major climate threat.

Tell President Biden that he can’t let coal off the hook! Sign the petition and make sure the president pauses new federal coal leasing and mining.

We’re winning in court thanks to your strong voice, your relentless actions, and your generous support, but we won’t truly win for our climate and public lands until the federal government stops permitting more coal.

With the election of President Joe Biden, hopes are high that he follows through with his campaign promise to ban fossil fuels on public lands and waters in the United States, but we’re leaving nothing to chance as we continue to build momentum for the President to take bold climate action.

Bringing the People Power

Our campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground on public lands and waters began in earnest way back in 2015, when we helped galvanize a coalition to take action to hold President Obama accountable to bold climate action.

Our aim? Put an end to selling public lands and waters for offshore drilling, onshore fracking, and massive coal strip mining.

At the end of 2016, we stepped up the pressure on the Obama Administration more than ever, delivering the message straight to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees fossil fuel development in much of the U.S.

While the past four years have seen unprecedented giveaways to the fossil fuels industry and assaults on public lands, we’ve kept up the action. Even in the face of the Trump administration’s blatant disregard of climate, communities, and justice, we’ve continued our protests to keep fossil fuels in the ground and put climate first.

With the election of Joe Biden as President, new hope has emerged for our climate, but keeping the pressure up is more critical than ever.

Shortly after the election, we put out the call for action to ensure the President-elect followed through with his commitment for ban on fossil fuels, circulating a petition that so far has received more than 10,000 signatures!

In December, we joined more than 500 other groups in calling on then President-elect Biden to follow through with his commitment to take action on federal fossil fuels, calling for the signing of an executive order to ban new leasing and permitting on public lands and waters.

And this week, environmental justice, Indigenous, climate and conservation groups from across the country delivered millions of petitions and public comments, and letters from hundreds of organizations, supporting a halt on new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on public lands and oceans.

We know that President Biden is facing enormous lobbying from the fossil fuel industry to back down. It’s up to us to ensure the President overcomes this influence and stays true to his commitments.

Upping the Legal Pressure

Our efforts to build people power come as WildEarth Guardians is stepping up unprecedented legal pressure to ensure President Biden delivers on his promises.

Earlier this month, we filed a new lawsuit to overturn the Trump administration’s sale of more than one million acres of public lands for fracking in the American West, aiming to ensure the new administration follows through with bold action keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions challenging the Trump administration for selling public lands for fracking in violation of federal environmental laws and climate science.

Just last week, on behalf of WildEarth Guardians and a coalition of plaintiffs, the Western Environmental Law Center filed an amended lawsuit to overturn the sale of nearly 45,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region.

Also this month, WildEarth Guardians, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Western Environmental Law Center filed suit to overturn the sale of nearly 60,000 acres of public lands in Montana.

Oh, and WildEarth Guardians also called on a federal appeals court to block the sale of nearly 70,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico.

The lawsuits come as numerous court rulings have rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to sell off millions of acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry without addressing the climate consequences of drilling and burning enormous quantities of fossil fuels. These wins include:

As we call on President Biden to take action, these legal efforts will ensure that one way or another, the administration will have no choice but to confront the climate consequences of selling public lands to the fossil fuel industry.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

All this advocacy has set the state for President Biden to follow through with bold climate action and this week, he’s expected to issue an Executive Order that imposes a ban on fossil fuels.

While the details haven’t been released, suffice it to say, January 27, 2021 will go down in history as a watershed moment for climate action. President Biden’s Order promises to mark the first time the U.S. federal government commits to getting out of the business of selling fossil fuels and into the business of putting climate and justice first.

In the meantime, an Indigenous led coalition is upping the call for the President to not just Build Back Better, but Build Back Fossil Free. Just tonight, the coalition held an amazing digital rally on January 26 that you can watch here >>

Science supports winding down and ultimately phasing out fossil fuel production as an essential strategy to confronting the climate crisis. The law supports accountability to pausing federal fossil fuel leasing. And morality supports ensuring a just transition from fossil fuels in America.

We’ll see what President Biden announces this week, but whatever happens, we’re sure it will be a watershed moment for U.S. action to confront the climate crisis.

Today, Colorado Governor Jared Polis released the state’s final roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The roadmap ostensibly lays out the path for Colorado to meet the climate goals of House Bill-19-1261, which requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050.

We acknowledge the moral responsibility of centering and lifting the voices of communities and organizations that work with frontline communities in government sanctioned sacrifice zones. To that end, below is the statement of frontline voices on Governor Polis’ Roadmap:

We know the problems and we have solutions, but Colorado government isn’t listening

Frontline communities say the Governor’s GHG Roadmap doesn’t go far enough

We live on the land of the Ute, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and 48 surviving tribes whose descendants are still living and traveling through what we now call Colorado.

In Colorado, frontline communities are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. For generations, communities of color and low-income have experienced the worst air quality, the worst water quality, and disproportionately live on contaminated soil—by no accident. Landfills, toxic waste treatment facilities, and polluting industries are more likely to be located near communities of color and low income. This concentration of pollution—compounded by extreme weather (heat waves and storms) and a lack of resilient community infrastructure, including healthcare and housing—means that these same communities, especially segregated rural and workforce communities, end up disenfranchised and struggling to survive.

To truly protect communities disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis we must first acknowledge then dismantle the harmful practices of environmental racism, white supremacy and predatory capitalism—made all the more clear by COVID19. Exclusion from decision making processes coupled with government negligence has resulted in environmental violence to our communities for generations, with little to no consequences for violators. We have sought to improve our relationship with the government so that we may heal these systemic problems and government sanctioned sacrifice zones together. We demand a government that is ready to guarantee the equal protection of us all under the law, for these laws to put our health and safety first, and for their policies to be made in consultation with the people most harmed by the legacy of pollution and the climate crisis.

  • It has been almost two years since HB19-1261 passed, and our communities have yet to see tangible action to rein in toxic air pollution or climate crisis-causing emissions. Our state needs to start moving rulemakings and policy now to make sure pollution in frontline communities is reduced and that our state’s climate goals are met. Every moment we delay, the communities who have been most harmed by pollution continue to live with the associated health
  • Colorado’s Climate Action Plan requires engagement and support of disproportionately-impacted communities, yet we are still waiting for CDPHE’s Equity Framework. The delay of this framework signals that disproportionately-impacted communities were not sufficiently consulted or centered, and therefore, are unlikely to reap the benefits that could come from the Governor’s
  • It is past time that we protect the people and respect the science. To be good ancestors for the next seven generations, the government should no longer silo and sideline equity efforts and instead actively work to untangle the systems that created these disproportionate impacts in the first

“The responsibility now rests on Colorado lawmakers and policy makers to build trust by giving the equity analysis top priority on their path to climate action. To truly remedy the generations of inequity and harm imposed on communities not afforded the same platforms to protect ourselves we need to stop doing with politics and economics what has been done to BIPOC communities for generations. That means no longer ignoring, flushing out, or choking out those communities most at risk to environmental and social injustice.”

  • Renee Millard-Chacon, Commerce City, CO Spirit of the Sun, 720-224-4204

“We have known for decades that when it comes to environmental pollution, BIPOC communities suffer the most. This pandemic is highlighting the disproportionate impact on our communities. So many Coloradans have voiced their concerns to our government agencies and even to the Governor himself. Each time we are told there will be change, yet polluting sites all over the state are still in operation despite dangerous, documented violations. If real actions are not taken now, by the time relief from environmental racism reaches us, it will be too late.”

  • Patricia Nelson, mother of a student of Bella Romero Academy Greeley, CO 337-532-0135

“Farmers and farm-workers are on the frontline of climate change daily — facing the threats of deepening drought and increasing heat. They are facing the impacts head-on and also ready to be part of the solution. Rural communities, agriculture, and workers all need to be central in conversations about climate action.”

  • Pete Kolbenschlag, Delta County, CO Colorado Farm & Food Alliance 970-261-0678

“Because our communities tend to have fewer financial resources, which translates to less political power, it tends to be easier for polluters to get away with contaminating our environment. Additionally, being in Southern Colorado away from the Capitol we have even less power. Our neighborhoods are used as waste dumps and rather than polluters paying for proper pollution prevention and waste management, the people of our communities end up subsidizing their profits with our health. Colorado regulators would be wise to recognize that our communities are the most directly and severely impacted and we have first-hand knowledge of the polluting practices of some of the worst corporate actors and therefore, have the potential to be an extremely valuable resource of information in the regulatory process.”

  • Jamie Valdez, Harmed by Xcel Energy’s Comanche Plant’s pollution, Pueblo, CO 720-933-6363

“The Greenhouse Gas Roadmap must ensure that communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by harmful pollution and climate change are first in line for clean air protections. Governor Polis must fully listen and learn from Indigenous, Black and Brown people’s experience with pollution in order to protect the health of Colorado’s most impacted communities. Colorado’s most precious resource is its children — they all deserve clean air from this day forward.”

  • Shaina Oliver, member of the Dineh (Navajo) and Field Organizer for Moms Clean Air Force Colorado 303-994-2421

“Environmental racism is not holding Polluters accountable, it is overwhelming communities with bureaucratic processes that are only meant to check boxes, and othering our communities by not giving us equal protection under the law. Justice isn’t charity — we have rights to a healthy environment. Racism will continue as long as the government continues to sanction sacrifice zones, where our rights can be ignored for profit.”

  • Lucy Molina, Suncor is her deadly neighbor Commerce City, CO, 720-275-5479

“As a former oil and gas worker, I have seen first hand the destruction the oil and gas industry has on the land, workers, and rural communities, especially Indigenous nations. Now, I see gentrification pushing our Black and Brown people out of cities and down valleys. Often this redlining and gentrification puts us into toxic environments, and if they aren’t yet the industry has plans to seek the minerals beneath our homes at any cost, including our health.”

  • Emmett Hobley – Denver, CO, 720-610-6969


We the undersigned acknowledge the moral responsibility of centering and lifting the voices of communities and organizations that work with frontline communities in government sanctioned sacrifice zones.

350 Colorado

Clean Energy Action

Colorado Fiscal Institute

Colorado Farm & Food Alliance

Colorado Latino Forum

Colorado Rising

Colorado Sierra Club

Conservation Colorado

Defiende Nuestra Tierras


E2- Environmental Entrepreneurs

Environmental Defense Fund

Good Business Colorado

GreenLatinos Colorado

Healthy Air and Water Colorado

Moms Clean Air Force

Mountain Mamas

Natural Resources Defense Council

North Front Range Concerned Citizens

Progress Now Colorado

Spirit of the Sun

WildEarth Guardians

Trump has made it a goal to sell as much public land as possible for fracking over the last four years, but thankfully after today, the administration’s pro-fossil fuel, climate and science denying, anti-public agenda will finally come to an end.

That’s because today—January 14, 2021—marks the last federal oil and gas lease sale to be held under the Trump administration. The sale involves nearly 7,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico, where the oil and gas industry has aggressively demanded the right to frack the sacred Greater Chaco region and pushed to drill at unprecedented levels in the Permian Basin.

Under Trump, these sales of public lands for fracking in New Mexico have drawn widespread and persistent condemnation from elected officials, Tribes, youth, communities, and many others. In fact, throughout the American West, the administration’s attempts to liquidate public lands to the oil and gas industry have spurred intense pushback and numerous court rebukes.

It’s no wonder. As public lands are sold for fracking, the federal government effectively opens the door for more fossil fuel extraction, leading to more climate pollution, more health threats, more air and water contamination, and more public lands destruction.

It’s why we’ve made “Keep It In The Ground” a rallying call for WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program. If we can’t keep fossil fuels in the ground, we have no chance of protecting our health, safety, and future.

Keep It In The Ground rally in New Mexico in 2016.

While today’s sale has again drawn outrage and protests, including additional legal challenges from WildEarth Guardians and its allies, it also marks an extremely hopeful new chapter in the future of how oil and gas will be managed on public lands in New Mexico and throughout the American West.

President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that banning the sale of public lands for fracking will be a key tenet of his administration. He’s pledged to enact such a ban on day 1, a promise that WildEarth Guardians and many others have been working to ensure he follows through with. You too can raise your voice and urge President-elect Biden to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.

Day 1 is one week from now, January 21, 2021. It can’t come sooner.

No place exemplifies the need for a ban on selling public lands to the oil and gas industry than in New Mexico. The  U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has not only ignored Tribal demands for a moratorium on selling lands in the Greater Chaco region, but also denied that authorizing more fracking in the Permian Basin has any consequences for the climate.

Oil and gas extraction from New Mexico public lands has fueled environmental injustice and racism, put the state’s scarce water supplies at risk, undermined clean air, and promoted economic instability. It’s a microcosm of how extraction has negatively affected public lands and communities throughout the entire American West, including in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.

Thankfully, President-elect Biden has nominated U.S. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to be the next Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Not only would Representative Haaland be the first Indigenous cabinet member in U.S. history, but her commitment to public lands, climate action, and justice is unparalleled.

She’s also made protection of the Greater Chaco region a priority, a proxy for safeguarding other sacred and irreplaceable cultural landscapes in the American West.

Representative Deb Haaland.

It’s an incredibly positive sign that the incoming Biden administration will take seriously the need to put climate first and put an end to selling public lands for fracking.

And it’s an incredibly hopeful sign that, despite one last Trump assault on public lands and the climate, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

This moment is all the more bittersweet considering where we were before Trump. Although President Obama embraced climate action and supported efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, the oil and gas industry “thrived” under his administration.

In 2016, we tried to convince Obama to put the brakes on selling public lands for fracking. Sadly, he denied our request, which tragically set the stage for the Trump administration to ramp up sales to the oil and gas industry to nearly unprecedented levels.

We hope President Biden takes to heart the need to confront the climate crisis, as well as the need to learn from the past. We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and nowhere is that more obvious and apparent than in New Mexico.

It’s sad and infuriating that to the bitter end, the Trump administration is doing everything it can to undermine our climate, justice, and public lands.

At the same time, it’s inspiring, and exciting that with leaders like Joe Biden and Deb Haaland, we may actually have a chance at reversing this tragedy and giving our nation and its public lands new hope for a sustainable, just, and prosperous future.

There’s no denying the climate crisis is taking a terrible toll on New Mexico, putting the state’s health, clean air and water, and its economic sustainability at risk.

In spite of this, oil and gas industry lobbyists from Washington, D.C. would have us believe that anyone working to defend the climate and protect the state’s future is on a “crusade” against New Mexicans.

In a December 4th Albuquerque Journal column penned by the Koch Industries-funded, Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, it was suggested that the non-profit organization I lead, WildEarth Guardians, is out to undermine the people of New Mexico. Our crime? Holding the Trump administration accountable to science, the law, and rational economic policy.

While New Mexico may be enjoying some of the fruits of an unprecedented oil and gas boom, what the industry doesn’t tell us is how much this boom is costing our state.

Water contamination, dangerous levels of air pollution, irreversible land degradation, and displaced communities are just some of the costs of oil and gas extraction.

Toxic emissions from oil and gas have pushed smog levels in southeast New Mexico so high that air quality is now violating federal health standards. Companies themselves report an average of more than two spills daily, many of which impact ground and surface waters.

Recent reports have also flagged that New Mexico taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $10 billion in oil and gas well cleanups because of inadequate bonding and a surge in bankruptcies.

But it’s the climate costs of the state’s oil and gas boom that are truly shocking. The climate damages due to annual emissions cost society $3 billion annually. That’s the cost of diminished snow pack and shrinking water supplies, increased frequency and intensity of fires, and more severe floods.

This estimation is based on the facts that the oil and gas industry in New Mexico emits more than 60 million metric tons of carbon annually at a cost of $50 per metric ton.

But industry doesn’t care because they don’t pay for these costs. It’s New Mexicans who shoulder the burden of these “externalities.” While big oil companies like Exxon and Chevron reap the profits, we lose.  We lose our water. We lose our health. We lose our New Mexico.

Given this, WildEarth Guardians has confronted a number of Trump administration proposals to sell thousands of acres of New Mexico public lands for more oil and gas extraction. These proposals have ignored the climate and other costs of oil and gas and instead sought to enrich companies at our expense.

It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry is responsible for creating the vast majority of carbon pollution responsible for the climate crisis. And it’s no secret that if we continue to enable more oil and gas extraction, we have no chance of reducing emissions and protecting New Mexico.

Of course, industry lobbyists bemoan WildEarth Guardians (or, as was suggested in the December 4th column, “WildEarthers”). It’s because we’re not afraid to cut through their rhetoric and hot air, and expose oil and gas for the economic, societal and ecological burdens that the industry forces you and I to have to pay.

The truth is that the greatest threat to the resilience of New Mexico’s fiscal health—beyond the existential threat of the climate crisis itself—is the state’s unstable and unsustainable dependence on oil and gas revenue, especially while industry is in the midst of a long-term financial decline that transcends its usual boom-and-bust volatility.

For its economic sustainability, New Mexico needs to transition away from reliance on oil and gas. Anyone who says otherwise is living in denial or, perhaps, Washington, D.C.

This week WildEarth Guardians is stepping up to defend clean air and people’s health from fracking.

At a virtual hearing before the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board starting today, we’re challenging the state’s approval of permits that are fueling air quality violations.

In spite of rising pollution in southeast New Mexico, regulators continue to rubberstamp more permits for the oil and gas industry to pollute. This region encompasses the western Permian Basin, which is the world’s largest oil producing region and a massive source of climate pollution.

As more permits have been approved, air quality has worsened, increasingly threatening people and communities in the region. Air quality in southeast New Mexico now violates federal health limits for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The thing is, the New Mexico Environment Department is legally prohibited from approving air pollution permits that contribute to violations of federal health standards.

In light of this, we’ve appealed a number of permits and provided written expert testimony highlighting how the New Mexico Environment Department’s ongoing permitting of more fracking pollution not only threatens clean air, but completely defies the law.

Today, we’re getting our day in court, although virtually.

The hearing kicks off with WildEarth Guardians Staff Attorney, Daniel Timmons, offering an opening statement, followed by testimony and cross examination from all the parties.

We simply ask that the Board uphold the law and the Department’s permitting regulations and put a stop to this untenable situation.

–  Daniel Timmons, WildEarth Guardians Staff Attorney

The Environmental Improvement Board is also scheduled to take public comment starting at 4 PM on September 23 and at 9 AM on September 24. If you can, tune in and offer your comments via WebEx, click here to join >>

We’ve prepared talking points to help guide your comments, please take the time to speak out if you can!

Our hope is that the Environmental Improvement Board, which consists of seven citizen members, will do the right thing, hold the Environment Department accountable, and reject illegally approved permits.

The need for the Environmental Improvement Board to uphold the law is more critical than ever for southeast New Mexico. In Eddy County, where the town of Carlsbad is located and where Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located, ozone levels continue to rise above health standards.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, Eddy County has experienced eight days of unhealthy ozone so far in 2020. As the chart below shows, 2020 is set to be yet another smoggy year for the region.

Without a doubt, this air pollution has been fueled by a boom in fracking in southeast New Mexico.

Recognizing this, the New Mexico Environment Department has proposed new regulations that would clamp down on ozone forming pollution from the oil and gas industry. While potentially offering relief, unfortunately the prospect of future new regulations doesn’t let the Department off the hook for protecting clean air in the present.

It’s critical that the oil and gas industry stop putting the costs of its pollution on the shoulders of people and communities. We won’t back down until we’ve achieved full accountability.

In response to mounting pressure over growing air pollution problems, Exxon subsidiary XTO Energy last week withdrew an application to construct a massive new natural gas processing plant in New Mexico.

This development is a big win for clean air, health, and climate. It’s also the latest victory in our efforts to confront the fracking industry in the Permian Basin, the world’s largest oil producing region.

Earlier this year, Guardians objected to the New Mexico Environment Department’s proposal to approve an air pollution permit that would have allowed XTO to build the Husky Gas Processing Plant and Central Delivery Point in southeast New Mexico.

The facility, which would have processed fracked gas from wells in the region, would have been a huge source of air pollution, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide, and smog forming emissions, like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

Southeast New Mexico is already struggling with dangerously high air pollution levels. Fueled by a fracking boom, the region is violating health limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

In our comments, we highlighted how approval of XTO’s permit was not legal under New Mexico’s air quality laws and regulations.

While the New Mexico Environment Department was still poised to approve XTO’s permit on September 7, 2020, the agency informed Guardians on September 2 that XTO withdrew its permit application.

In a short letter, the company asserted the reasons for withdrawing its permit application were “future infrastructure development plans.”

However, from our standpoint, air quality concerns clearly factored heavily into XTO’s decision.

This new gas processing plant would have been a major installation, with XTO investing considerably in its planning. The company’s 700 page permit application contained exhaustive expert reports, schematics, studies, and analyses. Yet at the end of the day, XTO simply couldn’t demonstrate its new plant would protect clean air, health, and the climate.

XTO’s decision most likely reflects the fact that the company saw its proposed gas processing plant as a losing investment. Ultimately, the company’s decision is a stark reflection of the headwinds facing the oil and gas industry as they own up to their true environmental costs.

Finally, even the oil and gas industry recognizes it makes more economic sense to keep it in the ground.

WildEarth Guardians is on the frontlines challenging new fracking and new oil and gas industry infrastructure in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico. The latest decision by Exxon’s XTO Energy to withdraw an air pollution permit application is a testament to our ability to defend clean air and health from fossil fuels, and the potential of our strategies and tactics to yield big gains for the climate.

Flaring at an oil and gas well in southeast New Mexico.

While air pollution from oil and gas extraction in New Mexico is on the rise, state regulators are effectively turning their backs on serious clean air problems and real solutions to meaningfully rein in the fracking industry’s toxic emissions.

It’s why WildEarth Guardians is working to confront New Mexico regulators and ensure they’re held accountable to putting climate, clean air, and health first.

A Growing Air Quality Disaster

It’s no secret that in New Mexico, the oil and gas industry is one the state’s largest sources of air pollution. Just in the last decade, companies have drilled unprecedented amounts of new wells, increasing oil and gas production more than 125%.

This development has unleashed a surge in emissions that have eroded clean air, filled the skies with more greenhouse gases, and undermined public health.

According to the American Lung Association, New Mexico now has failing air quality throughout the state. Reports further indicate that releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the oil and gas industry are higher than ever.

These impacts have been especially felt by people living in the heavily fracked northwest and southeast corners of New Mexico.

While there are more than 57,000 active wells in the entire state, more than 21,500 are located in the northwest, often referred to as the Greater Chaco region, and more than 34,300 are in the southeast, often referred to as the Greater Carlsbad region.

Location of active oil and gas wells in New Mexico. Most wells are located in the northwest and southeast parts of the state (data from New Mexico Oil Conservation Division).

This pollution has especially endangered Navajo communities in the Greater Chaco region, as well as people living in and near the town of Carlsbad.

A Soaring Smog Problem

Perhaps the most vivid sign of how bad oil and gas has made the air in New Mexico is to look at ground-level ozone monitoring data from across the state.

The key ingredient of smog, ground-level ozone is a poisonous gas that forms when pollution from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas operations react with sunlight.

Ground-level ozone is so poisonous that even at very small concentrations, it can cause serious respiratory damage. Because of its risks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established health standards for ozone, limiting concentrations in the ambient air to no more than 70 parts per billion.

While normally ozone is a big city problem, it’s well known that oil and gas extraction can be a major contributor to ozone pollution, particularly in the western U.S.

The two key pollutants most responsible for forming ozone are volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. The oil and gas industry is a huge source of these gases.

Drilling, fracking, pipelines, and other operations and equipment release huge amounts of volatile organic compounds, a natural component of oil and gas and a key byproduct of production. Engines used for drilling, natural gas compression, trucks, pumps, and more are also major sources of nitrogen oxides.

Oil and gas well site in northwest New Mexico, complete with engines, tanks, pipelines, and many other sources of air pollution.

Given this, it’s no surprise that the areas of New Mexico experiencing the highest ozone are the northwest and southeast portions of the state.

In the northwest counties of Rio Arriba and San Juan, ozone levels frequently exceed health standards and monitors in these counties are on the verge of violating Environmental Protection Agency health standards.

In the southeast counties of Eddy and Lea, ozone levels have already violated the health limit of 70 parts per billion, including at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

In fact, the ozone monitor in the town of Carlsbad in Eddy County has recorded the highest levels of ozone pollution in the state. Ozone has been so high in Carlsbad, it’s been comparable to pollution in big cities like Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles.

The numbers simply don’t lie: the oil and gas boom in New Mexico is fueling a dangerous smog boom.

The State’s Response? Keep Permitting More Fracking

In spite of high ozone, the New Mexico Environment Department continues to approve permits for the oil and gas industry to build new sources of air pollution.

Even in southeast New Mexico, where monitors are clearly violating ozone health standards adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department is rubber-stamping dozens of new permits monthly.

Just this week, WildEarth Guardians commented on dozens of new permit proposals, including for a natural gas compressor station in Eddy County and for more than 20 permits for other oil and gas production facilities.

At a hearing in June, the Environment Department stated that in southeast New Mexico, more than 30 permits are being approved every month.

Each new permit authorizes companies to release more volatile organic compounds and more nitrogen oxides, the very pollutants that are fueling the region’s ozone violations.

Oil well near home near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Photo by Joel Angel Juárez for High Country News.

From a health standpoint, it’s insane that the Environment Department keeps approving more permits for more pollution, effectively worsening ozone problems in the state. However, it’s also illegal.

Under New Mexico law, the Environment Department must deny pollution permits if they would cause or contribute to violations of air quality standards. The agency’s regulations explicitly state that permits can’t be approved where emissions would “cause or contribute” to air pollution in excess of ambient air quality standards.

Section of the New Mexico Administrative Code, which states plainly that the Environment Department can’t approve permits for sources of pollution that would worsen air quality problems.

That’s why over the past few months, WildEarth Guardians has been filing legal appeals of the New Mexico Environment Department’s approval of new permits for the oil and gas industry to pollute.

In petitions filed in May and June, we called on the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board, an appeals board comprised of citizens, to overturn the Environment Department’s permits. Just this week, we filed an expert report highlighting how the Department’s permitting defies facts and reality.

In the meantime, the New Mexico Environment Department keeps cranking out the permits. Just this week, the Department published notice that it intends to approve a pollution permit that would allow Exxon subsidiary, XTO Energy, build a massive new gas processing plant in southeast New Mexico.

New Regulations: Hope or Hot Air?

To their credit, the New Mexico Environment Department has proposed to adopt new rules that the agency claims will reduce oil and gas industry emissions and rein in the state’s ozone pollution.

As part of an “Ozone Attainment Initiative,” the Department released draft regulations at the end of July and is now asking for public comment on the rules.

While a refreshing step forward for clean air in New Mexico, a closer look at the proposed rules leaves much to be desired.

For one, the Environment Department hasn’t completed any modeling to demonstrate the draft rules will actually reduce ozone to safe and healthy levels. While modeling is in the process of being completed for the “Ozone Attainment Initiative,” a recent presentation indicates it won’t actually be done until after November 2020.

The draft rules are also riddled with loopholes and exemptions, including a proposal to exclude small oil and gas well sites (often called “stripper wells”) from regulation. It’s estimated this “small well exemption” would apply to around 95% of all wells in New Mexico, effectively keeping the industry unregulated.

Also of concern is that the rules continue to allow the oil and gas industry to flare as a means to control air pollution. Burning gases to control emissions is a wasteful and, in many cases, just as polluting practice.

Not surprisingly, in a virtual public meeting held this week, the New Mexico Environment Department faced extensive criticism over the loopholes and exemptions in its draft regulations.

Flaring is no solution to pollution.

More importantly, the draft rules completely ignore the need to address disproportionate impacts to people and communities living in close proximity to well sites, particularly Tribal communities, people of color, and low income or other marginalized groups.

Put another way, the rules do nothing to advance environmental justice and protect the most vulnerable, most discriminated, and most disenfranchised in New Mexico. It’s shocking given the Environment Department’s own stated commitment to advancing environmental justice in the state.

To be sure, the regulations are only draft at this point and we still have a lot of work to do to review, critique, and make recommendations to the Environment Department.

However, it is disappointing that the Environment Department has not put forward draft regulations that seem to fully rise to the challenge of protecting clean air, climate, and health in New Mexico.

Ultimately Industry Must be Held Accountable

Right now, the New Mexico Environment Department is certainly not doing everything it can and should to safeguard air quality and health in New Mexico. Amid recent revelations a critical ozone monitor in Carlsbad fell into disrepair, it’s clear the Department has to step it up.

However, it’s also clear that the oil and gas industry’s refusal to keep its toxic air pollution in check is making it more difficult than ever for regulators to effectively protect people.

As the industry rebounds after plummeting oil and gas prices earlier this year, reports indicate flaring and venting of natural gas has surged in New Mexico.

Company’s also continue to flout clean air laws and violate their pollution permits. Just last month, the Environment Department fined a company more than $5 million for ongoing illegal releases of toxic gases. Earlier this year, the agency put several companies on notice of outstanding clean air violations.

And in the last five years, oil and gas companies have repeatedly reported illegal emissions and been busted for violating their permits. The map below, which is from a New Mexico Environment Department online interactive map, shows just a few facilities in southeast New Mexico that have reported excess emissions or that have cited for violations.

Excess emission reporters are the orange circles. Oil and gas facilities busted for violating are the blue triangles.

The New Mexico Environment Department clearly needs to up its game and actions, but with the oil and gas industry’s defiance to clean air mounting, the challenge for the Department is increasingly immense.

Still, the reprehensible actions of fracking companies are no excuse for the Department to not do everything possible–and legally required–to put clean air, climate, and health first in New Mexico. This means taking action to deny pollution permits and to ensure that new rules truly deliver the strongest safeguards possible.

And ultimately it means taking action to help New Mexico put an end to fracking and start keeping oil and gas in the ground. As we’ve highlighted, the state can’t possibly protect clean air and the climate so long as oil and gas extraction occurs with impunity.

Stay tuned for updates, including information on how you can weigh in and help make a difference for climate, clean air, and health in New Mexico and beyond!

WildEarth Guardians today filed a lawsuit to get Colorado back on track for climate action.

The legal action comes as Governor Jared Polis and his administration missed a July 1, 2020 deadline to ensure the state meets legally required greenhouse gas reduction targets, including a 26% reduction in emissions by 2025, a 50% reduction by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2050.

In missing the July 1, 2020 deadline, Governor Polis isn’t just jeopardizing the state’s commitment to confronting the climate crisis, he’s also putting the state’s goal of climate justice at risk.

As we wrote earlier this week together with our friends with GreenLatinos, a lack of meaningful climate action puts disproportionately impacted people and communities, including those living in the shadow of the Suncor oil refinery north of Denver, at great risk.

Take Action! We need your help to really secure climate justice in Colorado. Tell Governor Jared Polis it’s time for real climate action.

Read the press release.