New Mexico environmental groups condemned the resumption of federal land leasing to the oil and gas industry after the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced leasing will resume on public land throughout the U.S., including in the country’s most active oilfield the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico.
Upon taking office in January, the administration of President Joe Biden imposed a temporary halt on federal oil and leasing as the Department of the Interior engaged in a review of its fossil fuel program, aiming to implement reforms that could better address pollution, climate change and land management.
That meant no lease sales, typically held quarterly for oil and gas companies to purchase tracts of federal land for development, were held in 2021 as of the summer.
Carlsbad-based Citizens Caring for the Future, a frequent opponent of pollution from the fossil fuel industry argued the pause on oil and gas leasing of public land enacted in January was needed to ensure the DOI conducted a proper review of its oil and gas program to mitigate pollution and devise better land management practices.
Group organizer Kayley Shoup, a resident of Carlsbad in the Permian Basin region, said fossil fuel extraction was proven to negatively impact public health and in the environment in the areas in communities where the industry operates.
“As frontline community members we are extremely disappointed by the news that the Biden Administration will resume business as usual for the oil and gas leasing program, allowing oil and gas companies and executives to continue lining their pockets at the expense of our health and safety,” Shoup said.
“The dangers of fossil fuel extraction are well-documented, and places like the Permian Basin will continue to suffer if serious reforms aren’t implemented now in order to protect our communities and future.”
New Mexico industry leaders were swift to condemn the pause on leasing, pointing to about half of the state’s oil and gas production – which accounts for about a third of its finances – occurred on federal land.
The restrictive policy, industry supporters argued, could mean major oil and gas producers could shift their operations to the other side of the Permian in Texas where most land was private and not impacted by the federal government.
But on Monday, the Interior Department announced it would resume its federal leasing program, following a June injunction filed by a federal judge in Louisiana.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty for the Western District of Louisiana ruled in a March 13 lawsuit filed by 13 states not including New Mexico that the lease caused undue economic harm to oil-producing states and the pause was beyond Interior’s authority.
The Department of Justice appealed the injunction, per Interior’s announcement, but in the meantime leasing would resume per the district court’s ruling.
“The appeal of the preliminary injunction is important and necessary,” read a statement from Interior. “Together, federal onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing programs are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions and growing climate and community impacts.”
The DOI said it still must review and update “outdated” royalty rates energy producers pay to the government to operate on public land, along policies to conserve wildlife, historic and cultural resources and to ensure “multiple uses” of public land.
The review will continue, the statement read, even as leasing resumes with a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and completely by 2050.
“Interior will proceed with leasing consistent with the district court’s injunction during the appeal. In complying with the district court’s mandate, Interior will continue to exercise the authority and discretion provided under the law to conduct leasing in a manner that takes into account the program’s many deficiencies,” the statement read.
“Separately, Interior continues to review the programs’ noted shortcomings, including completing a report.”
Kathleen Sgamma criticized the federal government in the wake of the DOI’s announcement for failing to schedule a lease sale following the injunction and for not yet releasing any report or plan to conduct its review of the federal oil and gas program.
She said the DOI was required under the court order to hold a lease sale before October, and its failure to do would mean the U.S. could increase its reliance on foreign energy supplies.
“At the same time, it’s encouraging foreign oil production, the Biden Administration is preventing American production and helping drive up the price Americans pay at the pump,” Sgamma said. “We call on the administration to declare a truce with American producers and promise to back off plans to regulate us off federal lands and out of business.
“When the rubber meets the road, high energy prices trump unrealistic climate change policies.”
Miya King-Flaherty, oil and gas organizer with the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter argued the leasing of federal public land to oil and gas should cease completely but called on the Interior Department to use stronger environmental analysis in future leasing decisions.
“These lease sales have been so harmful to New Mexicans. We strongly hold that no new leasing should occur on public lands,” she said.
“We are encouraged, however, by the Interior Department’s indication that it will use its statutory discretion in any future leasing. We hope that includes significant environmental analyses and consultations that should have come before previous lease sales took place.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.