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Court rules pro-fossil fuel groups can join case as environmentalists sue to halt drilling permits

A pump jack in New Mexico's portion of the Permian Basin.
Blake Thornberry
Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A pump jack in New Mexico's portion of the Permian Basin.

A coalition of New Mexico residents and environmental nonprofits is suing the state to halt oil and gas permits, and on Friday a court granted requests from an association of petroleum producers and the state's Chamber of Commerce to join the case.

A complaint filed last year by the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, along with New Mexico residents and groups, accuses the state of failing in a constitutional obligation to protect the environment.

A 1971 amendment to the state constitution says that the state's "beautiful and healthful" environment is of fundamental importance to the general welfare, and that the legislature shall provide for control of pollution and "despoilment".

In the complaint New Mexicans, including Indigenous people, testify that oil and gas extraction has caused extensive damage to land, water and air across the state.

It calls for remediation, including for the state to stop issuing permits for new drilling, and to strengthen regulations and enforcement to prevent pollution.

Both the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico filed motions to intervene in the case, arguing that their members, and the economy of the state more broadly, would be badly affected if the environmentalists' case were successful.

Judge Matthew Wilson of the First Judicial Court heard arguments for the petroleum group's motion from Jeff Wechsler.

"IPANM members have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their oil and gas businesses, interests, permits, facilities," he said. "They depend on the continuation of the current regulatory scheme for their livelihoods."

Mark Barron, representing the Chamber of Commerce, argued: "The expertise and analysis that the Chamber can bring to the public health and economic benefits of the oil and gas industry that's at issue here is special and unique and justifies their participation in the case."

The Center for Biological Diversity's counsel Gail Evans argued that their coalition is suing only the state.

“Plaintiffs have not sued private companies or private actors, because private actors cannot violate the constitution," she said.

But the judge granted the two organizations' motions, meaning they will now be part of the case.

State officials have filed another motion, this one to dismiss the case entirely, and a hearing on that is expected to be held on April 12.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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