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Fight over constitutional provisions to guard against oil, gas pollution moves ahead in New Mexico

Published: June 11, 2024, 8:30am

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico judge cleared the way Monday for a landmark lawsuit to proceed that alleges the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligations for protecting against oil and gas pollution.

Environmental groups and Native Americans who live near oil wells in the No. 2 producing state in the U.S. initially filed the case in 2023. They are seeking compliance with a “pollution control clause” in the New Mexico Constitution.

Judge Matthew Wilson denied a motion by the state to dismiss the case, saying there needs to be more scrutiny of New Mexico’s responsibilities under the constitution and that granting the state’s request would short-circuit that examination.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs celebrated the judge’s ruling, saying it will allow residents of New Mexico who have been living with the consequences of more oil and gas development in opposite corners of the state to have their day in court.

“The case can go forward on the undisputed facts about the extent of the pollution and the extent of the state’s failure to control that pollution,” said Gail Evans, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

She said plaintiffs have cleared a critical hurdle in the judicial process to bring forward evidence of constitutional violations.

“I’m confident the court will definitively enforce the constitutional protection of our state’s beautiful and healthful environment on behalf of the plaintiffs and every resident of New Mexico,” Evans said.

Attorneys for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-controlled Legislature did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the judge’s decision. The state can appeal the judge’s order.

Lujan Grisham’s administration has in recent years adopted rule changes aimed at limiting emissions from the oil and gas industry. However, environmental groups have raised concerns that enforcement isn’t keeping pace despite fines being levied against out-of-state energy companies and major settlements being inked to address air pollution.

The administration and lawmakers also are facing a backlash over their push to develop rules that would regulate the treatment and reuse of oil industry fracking water.

According to the lawsuit, oil production in New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin — one of the largest oilfields in the world — has increased nearly tenfold since 2010, leading to a surge in pollution. In northwestern New Mexico, lead plaintiff Mario Atencio, who is Navajo, said his family’s lands are at risk from spills at well and processing sites within the San Juan Basin.