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Environmentalists Target BLM, Forest Service on New Mexico Drilling

Claiming that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service are refusing to curb harmful air pollution and safeguard public health in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico from oil and gas drilling, three environmental groups have renewed and expanded their original lawsuit against the government.

WildEarth Guardians, Dine Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (DCARE), and Carson Forest Watch on Wednesday filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. According to Jeremy Nichols, director of Climate and Energy for WildEarth Guardians, the original lawsuit filed last fall by WildEarth Guardians and DCARE -- which has since been withdrawn -- had a tighter focus and only targeted the BLM (see NGI, Nov. 17, 2008).

"Public health is squarely at risk, yet the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are pushing ahead with more oil and gas drilling," said Nichols. "It's time to stop drilling away clean air in New Mexico."

The plaintiffs claim that federal agencies have failed to limit ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, while allowing more oil and gas drilling. An ozone gas forms when pollution from smokestacks, oil and gas operations, and tailpipes reacts with sunlight. The environmental groups point to a 2007 study by the New Mexico Department of Health that found that increasing ozone levels increased the number of asthma-related hospital visits in San Juan County.

The lawsuit targets two major decisions by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to ramp up oil and gas drilling in the San Juan Basin. Specifically, the lawsuit targets the BLM'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. The plaintiffs claim that 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.

BLM spokesman Hans Stuart said that while the agency is reserving comment until the lawsuit can be carefully reviewed, he did take issue with one of the claims for relief that the BLM prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) on its 2008 oil and gas lease sales. "I would point out that in 2003 BLM had completed a resource management plan [RMP] revision that created a new RMP covering oil and gas leasing," Stuart said. "An EIS accompanied the new RMP."

The lawsuit is also aimed at the U.S. 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 lawsuit claims that even the U.S. 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.

"We filed our original lawsuit against the BLM last fall," Nichols told NGI. "Since then, the Forest Service made its decision to open up more of the Carson National Forest for drilling. At that point we realized this problem is way more extensive than just the BLM not adequately analyzing impacts, so we dismissed our original case...regrouped and are now focused on a much bigger issue. It is not only that they failed to analyze the impacts, they are also failing to actually do anything about the impacts.

"These agencies are turning their backs while the San Juan Basin chokes on pollution," Nichols added. "It's time to start confronting the impacts of dirty energy development. It's time for these agencies to start taking responsibility for the health of the region they're impacting."

High ozone is especially of concern to those living on the Navajo Nation, the groups said. "Our communities are struggling with mounting air pollution and the public health cost of dirty energy," said Anna Frazier, with DCARE. "We need clean energy solutions that leave a legacy of clean air and healthy children."

Although many sources can contribute to ozone, in northwestern New Mexico oil and gas drilling is a primary culprit, the plaintiffs allege. 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," the environmentalists claim.

There are more than 20,000 oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin and more than 15,000 that are planned to be drilled, according to the BLM.

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