New Mexico governor lauds court decision over drilling

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has applauded the unanimous decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal to require the US BLM to look more closely at impacts from oil and gas drilling on Otero Mesa.

Eric Watkins
OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, May 1 -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has applauded the unanimous decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal to require the US Bureau of Land Management to look more closely at the potentially adverse impacts from oil and gas drilling on Otero Mesa.

"This is a major boost in our fight to protect one of New Mexico's most ecologically valuable and unique places," Richardson said. "I am pleased that the courts share our steadfast position that the public must have a voice in decisions affecting oil and gas leasing on Otero Mesa."

The court upheld a previous ruling in federal district court that BLM could not issue a new lease without further National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

Ricardson's statement comes in the wake of increasing concern in New Mexico and other Western states over rising levels of air pollution—ozone in particular—attributed to operations of the oil and gas industry.

In December 2008, the New Mexico Environment Department filed a major legal action seeking multimillion dollar fines from Marathon Oil Corp. for what it said were "thousands of state Air Quality Control Act, permit, and regulation violations at the firm's Indian basin gas plant."

The 14-claim suit encompasses more than 4,000 violations each of which, under New Mexico state law, can be punishable with a civil penalty of up to $15,000/day.

Richardson's statement also coincided with reports that environmental groups have launched a lawsuit against BLM and the Forest Service, claiming the two agencies failed to limit smog from oil and gas drilling in New Mexico.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the District of New Mexico by WildEarth Guardians and Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, targets recent decisions to authorize more oil and gas drilling within New Mexico's San Juan basin.

At issue are BLM's leasing of nearly 29,000 acres for oil and gas drilling in three auctions last year and the Forest Service's decision last July to authorize more than 7,000 new oil and gas wells and more than 5,000 acres of new oil and gas leasing in the Carson National Forest.

The advocacy groups argue the agencies failed to limit ground-level ozone—the key ingredient of smog—while allowing increased drilling.

The region is on the brink of violating federal health limits for ozone, the groups say, and oil and gas drilling operations release volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides—both pollutants that react to form ozone—into the air.

Ozone pollution, usually considered a summer problem, is being detected across the West this winter, raising questions about the program to monitor and cut the pollutant, according to a report by the Denver Post.

First detected in February 2005 near the oil and gas fields of Pinedale, Wyo., elevated winter ozone is now being found in New Mexico and Utah, according to state data, and could eventually be found in Colorado.

Colorado this year adopted new rules to curb oil and gas field emissions, which, according to Mike Silverstein, deputy director of the state Division of Air Quality, will keep the state "ahead of the curve" of winter ozone.

"Now that we know to look for it, I think we'll find high levels of winter ozone across the West and the world," Russell Schnell, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist, told the Post.

But Schnell, who heads the Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., already has one source in mind: "Any place where you have oil and gas drilling in a basin with snow cover, chances are you've got ozone."

Such findings are of concern to the oil and gas industry, which already is moving to cut emissions. In the area of Pinedale alone, more than $100 million has been invested to cut emissions, according to a NOAA estimate.

"Anything that may be a health issue we take very seriously," said Paul Matheny, Rocky Mountain region vice-president at Questar Gas Co., a major operator in Pinedale.

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