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In ‘precedent-setting’ move, judge sets aside drilling leases in Santa Fe forest

SANTA FE – Environmentalists have won what they say is a precedent-setting court decision that overturns oil and gas leases on more than 19,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest that the Bureau of Land Management approved in 2015.

Senior U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo of Albuquerque Thursday ordered the BLM to conduct further analysis on environmental impact of the potential drilling.

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A judge has set aside oil and gas drilling leases for more than 19,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest. (JOURNAL FILE)

Most significantly, the judge found that federal environmental law requires the BLM to consider the “downstream” and cumulative impacts on climate change of the use of the fuel produced from oil and gas leases on public lands.

Armijo wrote that federal law acknowledges that the impact of one action alone “may be individually insignificant, but also that the impact of the action may be significant only in combination with other actions.”

“It is this broader, significant ‘cumulative impact’ which must be considered by an agency, but which was not considered in this case,” Armijo’s ruling states.

The BLM had argued that only greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas exploration should be considered, not what happens when the fuel produced is actually used by consumers or industry down the line. The agency stated in its decision in favor of the leases that their “incremental contribution” to greenhouse gas emissions “cannot be translated into effects on climate change.”

Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center said the judge had recognized the indirect and cumulative effects of local oil and gas production. He called the ruling precedent-setting for other fossil fuel proposals on public land.

“The law requires the government to look before they leap into fracking on our public lands, which includes an honest look at how the continued exploitation of oil and gas will impact our climate and future generations” he said in a prepared statement.

The judge also held that the BLM had failed to take an adequate look at how the national forest leases allowing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would impact water quantities and the environment in general.

The 2015 leases were for 13 parcels covering nearly 31 square miles along the San Pedro Mountains north of Cuba, N.M.

A BLM staffer in Albuquerque referred a Journal reporter to an agency spokesperson in Washington D.C. who did not return a phone message.

The national forest drilling leases were controversial from the start. More than 100 protests were filed by numerous individuals and a couple of community groups.

BLM officials argued that specialists with both the agency’s Farmington office and the U.S. Forest Service reviewed nearly three dozen parcels, considering everything from effects on water and air quality to cultural resources and economics.

Many of the parcels were shelved because they didn’t comply with current land use plans or because of new information gained during public scoping meetings. “The team determined that the environmental analysis completed for the lease sale was in conformance with the BLM’s resource management plan and the Forest Service’s oil and gas environmental impact statement and therefore the BLM will be issuing the leases,” said BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel in 2015.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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