New Mexico residents sue seeking to block oil and gas permitting

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by Reuters

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New Mexico residents sue seeking to block oil and gas permitting

May 10 (Reuters) - New Mexico residents on Wednesday sued the state seeking to suspend new permitting for oil and gas production, claiming the government's approvals for fossil fuel projects, without proper oversight, violates a state constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.

The residents filed their lawsuit against state agencies and the state legislature in state court in Santa Fe, claiming New Mexico has set up a regulatory and permitting scheme that essentially exempts the oil and gas industry from environmental regulations -- either explicitly in state laws, or through inadequate enforcement.

"That's why we have methane clouds you can see from outer space, and why we have such poor air," said Gail Evans, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, who is representing the plaintiffs.

The governor's office and state environmental department didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to the lawsuit, several state laws that regulate things like hazardous waste and groundwater pollution explicitly exempt oil and gas industry pollution from their reach. And while there are laws addressing air pollution that do apply to the industry, the residents said they're not adequately enforced.

Those regulatory and enforcement gaps have created a "pollution crisis" that exacerbates climate change and damages the natural environment, according to the residents. They said that violates the state's constitution, which requires the state to control pollution, and to protect the state's "beautiful and healthful environment."

The residents are seeking an order saying the state is violating the state constitution and stopping all future oil and gas permitting until better controls are put in place.

The lawsuit was filed by a coalition that includes environmental groups, indigenous communities and frontline communities near oil and gas production sites. Those groups said there are approximately 66,000 active oil and gas wells in the state's Permian and San Juan Basins.

Oil and gas production in those basins has increased nearly tenfold since 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That agency said the state was the second-largest crude oil producing state in 2011.

The lawsuit is the first to focus on the 1971 environmental clause in the New Mexico constitution, but comes following the filing of several similar lawsuits across the country in recent years involving environmental rights protected in state constitutions.

The case is Mario Atencio et al. v. The State of New Mexico et al, County of Santa Fe First Judicial District, case No. Not immediately available

For the residents: Gail Evans, Maya Golden-Krasner and Jason Rylander of the Center for Biological Diversity, and Timothy Davis of WildEarth Guardians

For the state: Counsel not immediately available

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