The battle over constitutional provisions protecting against oil and gas pollution continues in New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. — A New Mexico judge cleared the way Monday for a historic court case to go further, alleging that the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligations to protect against oil and gas pollution.

Environmental groups and Native Americans living near oil wells in the No. 2 producing state in the U.S. initially filed the case in 2023. They are demanding compliance with a 'pollution control clause' in the Constitution of New Mexico.

Judge Matthew Wilson denied a state request to dismiss the case, saying there needs to be more scrutiny of New Mexico's responsibilities under the Constitution and that granting the state's request would short-circuit that investigation.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs applauded the judge's ruling, saying New Mexico residents who have lived with the consequences of more oil and gas development in opposite corners of the state can have their day in court.

“The case can move forward based on the undisputed facts about the extent of the pollution and the extent of the state's failure to control that pollution,” said Gail Evans, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

She said prosecutors have cleared a crucial hurdle in the judicial process to bring forward evidence of constitutional violations.

“I am confident that the court will definitively enforce the constitutional protections of our state's beautiful and healthy environment on behalf of the plaintiffs and every resident of New Mexico,” Evans said.

Lujan Grisham's administration has done that in recent years rule changes adopted aimed at limiting emissions from the oil and gas industry. However, environmental groups have raised concerns that enforcement is not keeping pace, despite fines being levied on out-of-state energy companies and large settlements inked to tackle air pollution.

A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday evening that the administration was still reviewing the judge's decision.

“We will continue to vigorously defend these claims,” said Michael Coleman, the governor's communications director.

Attorneys for the Legislature did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Two major business associations – the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce and the Independent Petroleum Producers Association of New Mexico – have formally intervened in legal proceedings and unsuccessfully pushed for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

The government and lawmakers are also facing a backlash for their push to develop rules that would regulate legislation treatment and reuse of fracking water from the oil industry.

Environmentalists, including the group New Energy Economy, on Monday documented what they said were secret financial ties between a member of the state's Water Quality Control Commission and a private oil and natural gas production company based in Farmington, New Mexico. Advocates urged the official's exclusion from rulemaking proceedings over the treatment and reuse of fracking water. A complaint was also filed with the State Ethics Commission.

According to the lawsuit, oil production in New Mexico's portion of the Permian Basin — one of the largest oil fields in the world — has increased nearly tenfold since 2010, leading to an increase in pollution. In northwestern New Mexico, Chief U.S. Attorney Mario Atencio, who is Navajo, said his family's lands are at risk from spills at wells and processing sites in the San Juan Basin.

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