Moving to protect the climate, public health, and to further environmental justice, a coalition today filed suit to overturn the sale of leases on nearly 41,000 acres of public land in New Mexico for oil and gas drilling. The Bureau of Land Management (the Bureau) did not allow a comment period on the lease sale’s draft environmental assessment, and held only a lightning-quick, 10-day protest period. In addition, the coalition charges that for this lease sale, 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.
“This lease sale will have a direct impact on the Diné communities of Ojo Encino, Torreon and others,” said Wendy Atcitty with Diné C.A.R.E. “Within the nearly 41,000 acres of lease sale parcels are four to five municipal wells that provide water to Ojo Encino, Torreon, Pueblo Pintado, and White Horse Lake. So far, the Bureau has failed to address health concerns, air and water quality concerns, or provide opportunities for meaningful public participation in this whole process. The health of our communities needs to come first.”
“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.
“The Bureau of Land Management continues to run roughshod over the Greater Chaco landscape by sanctioning an unprecedented amount of industrialized fracking having never analyzed the impacts of these activities on communities or the climate,” said Rebecca Sobel with WildEarth Guardians. “In the midst of a pandemic, we are forced back to court to defend Diné communities that continue to suffer from oil and gas impacts and related COVID-19 morbidity–more victims of the administration’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda.”
“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. “We appreciate the commitment of organizations associated with this litigation to address inequities and agency indifference to upholding their responsibilities.”
“Today’s filing underscores the need to hold to account the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management for its repeated illegal actions that 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 perpetrated in this region must stop.”
Today’s lawsuit, which targets oil and gas leases from late 2018, comes as BIPOC demonstrate society’s deeply entrenched racial injustices to 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 June 2019 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.