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New Mexico oil and gas pollution lawsuit gets Santa Fe hearing

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Roz Brown

(New Mexico News Connection) A court hearing is scheduled this week in a lawsuit claiming New Mexico is violating residents' rights to a clean and healthy environment by not holding its oil and gas industry accountable.

Tim Davis, staff attorney for Wild Earth Guardians Climate and Energy Program, said the lawsuit was filed last May by a coalition that includes environmental groups, indigenous communities and frontline residents near extraction sites.

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Oil and gas production and their revenues have skyrocketed in New Mexico in the past decade. But Davis said the state is not upholding its constitutional duty to control pollution by providing proper oversight after fossil-fuel projects are approved.

"We haven't increased the number of inspectors or inspections with the increase in production - the state has also not stepped up any enforcement activity," he argued.

According to the court case, several New Mexico laws meant to regulate hazardous waste and groundwater pollution explicitly exempt the oil and gas industry, and those that do apply are not adequately enforced. At the time of the filing, a spokesperson for the governor's office called the lawsuit "misguided," saying it would distract from the government's work on climate issues.

Oil and gas extraction revenues are the largest contributor to New Mexico's general fund, delivering the highest profit ever - $109 million - earlier this year. Production also has grown by about 10 percent over the past year. Davis believes that requires immediate action to remedy the increasing pollution problem.

"You have more and more production," he added. "We know that leads to more and more pollution, but at the same time we're not doing anything to control that pollution - and so this case at its core is about holding the State of New Mexico accountable."

The First Judicial Court in Santa Fe will hear arguments Friday over whether the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce can join the lawsuit as third-party intervenors. Davis will address the court case and other issues tonight as part of a climate-change speaker series sponsored by New Mexico State University.