Lawsuit claims oil boom imperils national park in New Mexico

U.S. land managers violated environmental laws and their own regulations when issuing dozens of leases to drill in one of the nation's busiest oilfields, environmentalists claimed Monday in the latest lawsuit aimed at getting the federal government to consider the cumulative effects of oil and gas development.

WildEarth Guardians filed its complaint Monday in U.S. District Court, claiming the oil boom in southeastern New Mexico is a threat to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the surrounding area's cave systems and desert slopes.

The group also is concerned about deteriorating air quality, arguing that the Bureau of Land Management failed to weigh the effects of more leases with the surge in development across the Permian Basin.

Energy companies have invested billions of dollars in the region in recent years. At a shareholders meeting last week, Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Darren Woods said production in the Permian Basin — which straddles West Texas and southeastern New Mexico — is growing faster than expected.

The Bureau of Land Management has been working on an updated plan to guide development in the area, but environmentalists contend more than 200 leases awarded in late 2017 and 2018 could compromise that effort.

"This case raises many issues, but fundamentally it's all about climate," said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

Nichols said there has been no effort by the Trump administration to curb fossil fuel production or reduce emissions.

Earlier this year, a judge blocked oil and gas drilling across almost 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) in Wyoming, ruling that the government must consider climate change impacts more broadly as it leases public land for energy exploration.

That followed a ruling in Montana that faulted the government for inadequate consideration of emissions when approving projects on federal land.

The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment on the lawsuit filed Monday and did not immediately provide details on the status of the pending resource management plan.

The National Parks Conservation Association and other environmental groups also are pushing for more comprehensive planning in the Permian Basin, saying Carlsbad Caverns needs to be protected from encroaching development since it's internationally recognized for its system of underground caves, dark night skies, bat colonies, and for the Chihuahuan desert landscape within its boundaries.

The leases in question cover more than 106 square miles (276 square kilometers) in New Mexico.

According to the lawsuit, the affected lands near the leased parcels include recreation spots beyond Carlsbad Caverns, such as Guadalupe Mountains National Park along the Texas-New Mexico border, the Pecos and Black rivers and Rio Penasco.

WildEarth Guardians pointed to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that showed Carlsbad Caverns and Eddy and Lea counties exceeded ozone pollution levels numerous times in 2017 and 2018.

In 2018, daily ozone concentrations at the park exceeded acceptable levels more than 60 times.

"Any increase in emissions of these ozone precursors will exacerbate the negative health effects from already high levels of ozone in the region," the lawsuit states.

Environmentalists also raised concerns about light pollution from the increased development. When combined with smog, they say visibility will be negatively affected.

In West Texas, environmental groups are complaining about air pollution around Odessa and other locations . They have called on regulators in that state to adopt stricter oversight of air pollution permits while penalizing polluters who violate the terms of those permits.

Industry officials in Texas and New Mexico argue that developers have made strides in reducing pollution and that the boom has been a benefit to both states and the nation.