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Federal Court Rules New Mexico Clean Air Lawsuit Can Move Forward

February 12, 2010
Jeremy Nichols (303) 573-4898 x1303
In This Release
Climate + Energy  

Friday, February 12, 2010
Federal Court Rules New Mexico Clean Air Lawsuit Can Move Forward

Oil and Gas Drilling Increasing Smog, Endangering Public Health
Contact: Jeremy Nichols (303) 573-4898 x1303

Santa Fe, NM-A judge has given the green light to a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, and Carson Forest Watch against the federal government over its refusal to curb harmful air pollution in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, including in the Navajo Nation, from oil and gas drilling.

“This is a major step forward in holding the federal government accountable to clean air and public health,” said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians.

The lawsuit, filed last April, challenges the failure of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to limit ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, while allowing more oil and gas drilling. A poisonous gas that forms when pollution from smokestacks, oil and gas operations, and tailpipes reacts with sunlight, ozone is linked to a number of ill health effects. A 2007 study by the New Mexico Department of Health found that increasing ozone levels increased the number of asthma-related hospital visits in San Juan County.

The federal government requested WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit be dismissed. On February 9, 2010, Judge Robert Brack of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico rejected the federal government’s request, allowing WildEarth Guardians challenge to proceed.

Typically an urban problem, ozone air pollution is on the rise in the Four Corners region. In recent years, ozone levels have climbed dangerously high in San Juan County, New Mexico. The region is on the brink of violating current federal health limits for ozone air pollution and will likely violate new health limits recently proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If the region falls into violation of federal limits, the largely rural region will be declared a “dirty air” area, a designation usually reserved for cities like Los Angeles and Houston.

Although many sources can contribute to ozone, in northwestern New Mexico oil and gas drilling is a primary culprit. Two key pollutants react to form ozone-volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. Oil and gas drilling operations are the largest source of volatile organic compounds in the region and are second only to the region’s two coal-fired power plants (the San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant) in nitrogen oxide emissions.

There are more than 20,000 oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin and more than 15,000 planned to be drilled, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Collectively, oil and gas drilling operations are the largest source of ozone forming pollution in northwestern New Mexico. A recent modeling report prepared by the New Mexico Environment Department in August of 2009 confirmed this and found that reducing pollution from oil and gas operations, as well as coal-fired power plants, is the most effective strategy to keep harmful levels of ozone air pollution in check.

“Dirty energy is taking a dangerous toll on clean air and public health in the San Juan Basin,” said Nichols. “With cleaner energy we can make progress toward keeping communities safe.”

WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit targets two major decisions by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to ramp up oil and gas drilling in the San Juan Basin. Specifically, the lawsuit targets:

The Bureau of Land Management’s decision to lease 28,510 acres for oil and gas drilling in the San Juan Basin through three separate lease auctions held in 2008 without requiring clean air protections. Leasing confers a right to drill and it is estimated that the decision could lead to the development of 712 new oil and gas wells with no safeguards; and

The Forest Service’s decision to authorize more oil and gas drilling on the 153,000 acre Jicarilla Ranger District of the Carson National Forest. The decision, issued last July, would authorize more than 700 new oil and gas wells and more than 5,000 acres of new oil and gas leasing. The Forest Service itself concluded that the decision would “significantly” impact air quality in the region by increasing ozone air pollution levels, but required no safeguards be implemented.

WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit was filed as other rural parts of the American West, including western Wyoming and Colorado, are reeling from unhealthy ozone air pollution tied to oil and gas drilling authorized by the federal government. ###

View the Motion to Dismiss Ruling (PDF)