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Judge to consider if historic oil and gas pollution lawsuit should go to trial

Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance

A New Mexico judge is set to hear motions by the state to dismiss a historic, and first-of-its-kind constitutional lawsuit that aims to curb oil and gas leases.

“Us as quote, unquote ‘U.S. citizens’ that are in the belly of the beast have a responsibility to the rest of the world to stand up and say ‘no’ to dependence and addiction to fossil fuels,” said Julia Bernal of Sandia Pueblo, director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, and one of the petitioners in the suit.

Bernal is part of a large coalition of frontline Native American communities, environmental groups, and individuals who argue New Mexico’s governor, legislature and various state agencies have neglected to meet their constitutional obligations to protect the environment.

An amendment, passed by voters in 1971, specifies that the legislature shall “provide for control of pollution and control of despoilment of the air, water and other natural resources.”

Lead plaintiff Mario Atencio argues that the destruction to New Mexico’s air, water, and land is a burden carried by mostly poor and rural areas – and state leadership has failed to shield them from skyrocketing fossil-fuel production.

“We have to do something,” Atencio said. “As Nuevo Mexicanos, when you look at the constitution, we are afforded certain rights. One is for a healthy and safe environment. Our environment out there, the landscape, is not safe or healthy. It’s contaminated and hazardous now.”

Their complaint asks that the state reform oil and gas policy and stop issuing drilling permits.

Michael Coleman, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, told KUNM in an email that they do not comment on the specifics of pending litigation. However, he added that “the state will vigorously defend its position in this matter.”

Just last month, the court granted a motion by the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce to join the suit. The business groups argue any potential reforms to the industry from the case could be detrimental to the state’s oil-dependent economy.

A similar challenge in Montana could be seen as a potential precedent for the case moving forward. In 2023, a judge sided with young climate activists who successfully argued the state violated their constitutional rights by promoting fossil fuel development without taking into account the industry’s effects on climate change.

The hearing will take place on Friday, April 12th and begin at 8:30am via Google Meet or at the First Judicial District Court of New Mexico in Santa Fe.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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