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Federal Agency Sued Over Air Quality, Ozone in New Mexico

Two environmental groups are suing the Bureau of Land Management, alleging that the federal agency has failed to curb ozone levels and safeguard air quality in northwestern New Mexico from oil and gas industry emissions.

Dine CARE and WildEarth Guardians filed the lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Santa Fe.

The groups contend the BLM—which oversees oil and gas activities in the San Juan Basin, one of the largest natural gas fields in the nation—is responsible for allowing ozone pollution in the region to rise to dangerous levels.

The lawsuit argues that the BLM leased more than 22,000 acres during quarterly oil and gas lease sales in April and July without addressing ozone pollution or requiring air pollution controls.

"Communities throughout the Four Corners region, including our communities on the Navajo Nation, are struggling with harmful air pollution, a legacy of dirty energy development," said Anna Frazier of the Navajo environmental group Dine CARE. "We need clean energy solutions that leave a legacy of clean air and healthy children."

According to the lawsuit, BLM allegedly violated federal environmental law by going forward with the leases without preparing environmental impact statements and without providing a timely opportunity for public involvement.

Oil Refinery in California
Oil Refinery in California

The groups want the court to stop the BLM from executing the lease sales until the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although they had not seen the lawsuit, BLM officials said Wednesday they did not violate NEPA.

The BLM said it has been working with the industry in an effort to minimize venting of gases and to control emissions from oil and gas equipment in the field. The agency also requires oil and gas companies to meet all current environmental requirements, including state air quality standards, when they apply for a drilling permit.

"This is something we've been addressing for quite some time," said Tony Herrell, BLM's deputy director for minerals in New Mexico. "This is an issue that if we hadn't been working on it for the last eight to 10 years, we would be in a much worse case than what we are now."

Dine CARE and WildEarth Guardians argue that oil and gas operations are the largest source of ozone forming pollution in northwestern New Mexico.

'Part of the Solution, Not the Problem'

WildEarth Guardians said air quality monitors recently indicated ozone levels in the region were at an average of 77 parts per billion, exceeding the new federally allowed limit of 75 parts per billion.

The groups said concerns about ozone aren't limited to New Mexico. They point to other parts of the West, including Wyoming, that are experiencing unhealthy ozone levels that they claim are tied to oil and gas activity.

If the lawsuit is successful, Dine CARE and WildEarth Guardians hope they can force the BLM to address the impacts of oil and gas on clean air throughout the West.

"With public health at stake, it's time for the Bureau of Land Management to start being a part of the solution, not the problem," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, argued that ozone is just the latest argument being used by environmental groups that are trying to halt oil and gas development.

She said ozone pollution in the San Juan Basin stems from multiple sources, not just oil and gas. She pointed to vehicle emissions and a pair of coal-fired power plants in the region.

"It's a multifaceted problem. It's not as simple as some special interest groups would like to have you believe," she said, adding if the groups got their way and "regulated oil and gas out of existence, the ozone problem would not go away."

Sgamma said the petroleum association is working with the Western Regional Air Partnership to inventory oil and gas emissions in the San Juan Basin and throughout the West. She said the data is expected to give industry and state regulators a better understanding of the sources and help them identify ways to reduce emissions.