The first lease of federal land in New Mexico for oil and gas development during the administration of the President Joe Biden could be sold next year.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) moved forward with a sale, concluding a public comment period Oct. 1 as its parent agency the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) conducted a review of its fossil fuel program.
Upon taking office in January, Biden implemented an indefinite halt of new federal oil and gas leasing as the DOI undertook a review of its fossil fuel policy, aiming to better address growing pollution and climate change concerns.
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A federal judge in Louisiana this summer issued an injunction barring the DOI from enforcing the halt on new leases, ordering the federal government resume lease sales it previously conducted quarterly during the previous administration of President Donald Trump.
Environmental and conservation groups in New Mexico argued against the resumption of leasing ahead of the DOI’s completion of its review, worried the federal government had not adequately addressed pollution concerns stemming from oil and gas development.
They were particularly concerned about new oil and gas developments going into the southeast Permian Basin region of the state where state officials found elevated levels of ground-level ozone deemed the result of heightened fossil fuel extraction.
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In question was about 520 acres in southeast New Mexico – one 320 parcel in Chaves County and 200 acres on four parcels in Lea County – the BLM planned to put up for auction to oil and gas companies next year following subsequent public comment and protest periods.
The sale also included one 14 acre parcel in Dewey County, Oklahoma.
Leases are issued for 10 years and as long thereafter that they continue to produce oil and gas.
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Federal oil and gas policy inadequate for new leases?
In an Oct. 1 letter to BLM New Mexico Acting State Director Melanie Barnes, a coalition of environmental groups from western states including the New Mexico Wildlife Federation pointed to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts from fossil fuel developments.
They argued no new leases should be sold until the federal government devises strategies to mitigate such problems.
“Moreover, the federal oil an gas programs inadequately account for environmental harms to lands, water and other resources, foster speculation by oil and gas companies and frequently leave impact communities out of important conversations about how they want the public lands and waters managed,” the letter read.
“In spite of the recent court decision, we believe the BLM has no obligation to offer any of the nominated parcels for sale, and continues to enjoy considerable discretion to protect public lands, waters and wildlife, cultural resources and sacred sites, and community health and safety from the impacts of the federal oil and gas program.”
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The groups pointed to multiple court cases they argued set a legal precedent for the BLM to choose whether to issue leases based on their environmental impacts.
The letter also pointed to purported deficiencies in the leasing program, such as “out-of-date” bonding and royalty payments paid by operators to the American public, concluding that without reforms the leases sales would fail to “serve public interest.”
Without addressing such issues in its ongoing, yet unreleased review of the program, the groups argued lease sales should be deferred until reforms were put in place.
A Sept. 29 letter to the BLM from exclusively New Mexico groups echoed similar complaints with the BLM’s leasing policies that would likely remain in place for the 2022 sale.
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“In New Mexico specifically, we are gravely concerned that resuming leasing at this juncture will further imperil fish and wildlife species, burden New Mexicans with even more of the oil and gas industry’s clean-up costs, and not fully compensate taxpayers for the development of publicly-owned lands and resources,” read the letter.
When the sale was announced in August, oil and gas industry leaders expressed frustration that the land, which they said had already received heavy environmental analysis and stakeholder comment, would not be offered for lease until 2022.
“Announcing yet more analysis of lease parcels without scheduling the actual sales this year complies with neither the letter of the law nor the spirit of the judge’s order overturning the leasing ban,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
“The environmental analysis was already completed for parcels that were ready to go to auction at the beginning of the year before the unlawful leasing ban was announced. There is no need to redo that analysis.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.