Conservation groups, led by citizens from Carlsbad, filed suit today to overturn the Biden administration’s approval of nearly 6,000 acres of oil and gas leases in southeast New Mexico’s Permian Basin.

Originally authorized by the Trump administration, the challenged leases were sold on January 14, 2021, just days before President Biden took office and announced a pause on new federal oil and gas leasing to protect the climate. In spite of Biden’s promise, the U.S. Department of the Interior formally approved the Trump-era leasing on May 12, 2021.

According to the suit, the agency has also refused to disclose the costs of more oil and gas development and to take steps to limit or even prevent new development.

“Those of us living in Carlsbad continue to be alarmed by our ever-degrading air quality and environment in the region,” said Kayley Shoup with Citizens Caring for the Future. “Any direction you look in Southeast New Mexico your eyes will be met with rigs, flares, and pollution at a mass scale. This devastation can even be seen in space as NASA has recently identified a super emitting site mere miles from Carlsbad. Unmitigated oil and gas production on public lands here in New Mexico has already taken away our health and has stifled our ability to nurture industries such as agriculture.”

“Oil and gas companies are extracting record profits while outsourcing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to the public,” said Rose Rushing, Farmington-based attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The most marginalized communities in New Mexico are usually the most affected by the oil and gas industry’s toxic legacy in our backyards, and also stand to suffer the most from climate change.”

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, challenges the Biden administration’s decision to uphold the Trump-era leases, targeting the administration’s failure to address the harm from expanded oil and gas extraction to the climate and regional air quality.

Oil and gas extraction in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s largest oil producing regions, is a huge source of air pollution and has fueled a surge in smog in the region that has especially impacted the town of Carlsbad. It’s also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Oil and gas in the Permian is not only a huge source of potent methane gas, but ultimately is burned, releasing massive amounts of carbon.

Recent reports indicate that unchecked fracking in the entire Permian Basin will unleash more than 55 billion metric tons of carbon by 2050, exhausting 10% of the global carbon budget needed to limit worldwide average temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“While it’s shameful President Biden is not living up to his promise to pause new oil and gas leasing to protect the climate, it’s even more shameful he’s rubber-stamped Trump-era leases,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.  “For the climate, we have to stop selling our public lands out to the oil and gas industry.”

Several analyses from environmental organizations show climate pollution from the world’s already producing fossil fuel developments, if fully developed, will push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“Any expansion of fracking leases belies climate science and promises more harm to frontline communities and endangered animals like lesser prairie chickens,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This lawsuit will hold the Biden administration accountable to its own climate, environmental justice and biodiversity goals.”

In 2022 the Biden administration agreed to reconsider millions of acres of oil and gas leases approved by the Trump administration. That agreement, however, did not include the leases sold in New Mexico in January 2021.

This story is a staff report from The Paper.