Moving to protect the climate, public health, and to further environmental justice, a coalition on Tuesday filed a complaint in federal court challenging two oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region. Today’s filing is a supplement to an earlier complaint filed in July 2020, also in Greater Chaco. The consolidated case now seeks to overturn the sale of 42 Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases comprising nearly 45,000 acres of public land. In each sale, the Bureau rushed public comment on these leases, unlawfully skipping public comment on some actions altogether. The Bureau’s hasty climate review of the drilling also falls short of the analysis of its cumulative impacts required by law. The drilling will also disrupt community life, public health, and historic and cultural properties in the Greater Chaco region.
“The 42 oil and gas lease parcels we are contesting include lands in the Diné communities of Ojo Encino and Torreon,” said Robyn Jackson with Diné C.A.R.E. Until the Bureau of Land Management meaningfully engages with Diné communities on the many health and environmental injustices that are directly attributable to oil and gas pollution and the Bureau’s slack oversight, these lease sales need to be stopped.”
The Bureau’s inadequate public participation process falls far short of the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement” that environmental justice demands – an important consideration because these leases impact the Greater Chaco region and the Diné communities of Torreon and Ojo Encino. The Greater Chaco region is already more than 90% leased for oil and gas development with more than 40,000 wells existing in the area.
“It is both unethical and unlawful for the agency to ignore the inequities and injustices inherent to its oil and gas program,” said Ally Beasley with the Western Environmental Law Center. “These inequities and injustices are not incidental–they are structural, systemic, and part of a historical, ongoing pattern and practice of environmental racism, colonialism, and treatment of the Greater Chaco as an energy sacrifice zone. It has to stop.”
Not only was the Bureau’s inadequate participation process unlawful and an affront to environmental justice, the agency also failed to take a hard look at environmental justice impacts. The Bureau also failed to adequately analyze the effects of oil and gas drilling on the health of nearby residents. The environmental assessment briefly mentions health impacts, but does not contain any real analysis and ignores information and data provided to the agency in the limited public process. Health and environmental justice are deeply intertwined. Yet here, the Bureau ignored the disproportionate health and safety risks of fracking and drilling–especially cumulative impacts–to people and communities in the lease sale area.
“What’s happening in the Greater Chaco region underscores the need for President Biden to quickly follow through with his pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing and permitting on public lands,” said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner for WildEarth Guardians. “For our climate and future, the injustice of fracking in Greater Chaco and across the American West must be stopped to ensure a just transition from fossil fuels.”
“The Bureau continues irresponsible oil and gas leasing that cuts out public participation and any comprehensive analysis of what would transpire on the landscape and in communities when oil and gas development would occur,” said Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “There appears to be a definite pattern of agency indifference to upholding its responsibilities.”
“Today’s filing underscores the need to continue to hold the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land
Management accountable for its repeated illegal actions to bypass thorough environmental reviews and cultural resource assessments, ignore public input, and sideline meaningful Tribal consultation in its oil and gas leasing program,” said Miya King-Flaherty with the Sierra Club – Rio Grande Chapter. “The Greater Chaco landscape continues to be desecrated and the environmental injustices must stop. We hope the new Biden administration will step in and protect this region.”
Today’s lawsuit, comes at a moment of reckoning with society’s deeply entrenched racial injustices in the U.S. and the world–injustices that are both illustrated and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit also comes as science increasingly supports winding down and ultimately phasing out fossil fuel production as a key strategy to confronting the climate crisis.
A 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report found that oil and gas produced from public lands and waters contributes to 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And a 2018 report by the Stockholm Environmental Institute confirmed that ending public lands fossil fuel production could significantly reduce nationwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Ending the sale of public lands for fracking would also yield enormous health benefits. In addition to the industry’s climate impacts, the fracking science compendium released in 2020 by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York confirmed extensive health risks associated with oil and gas extraction, including cancer, asthma, pre-term birth, and more.