The oil and gas industry is one of the strongest contributors to New Mexico’s burgeoning economy. Oil and gas jobs tally over 130,000 in the Land of Enchantment, stretching from the Permian Basin in the southeast to the San Juan Basin in the Four Corners region, and the industry added over $16 billion to the state economy in 2018 alone. In 2019, state revenue from oil and gas climbed to over $3 billion – 39% of the total receipts to New Mexico’s general fund. Despite these undeniable positive contributions, some environmental groups have doubled down on their efforts to block New Mexicans from these benefits and to boot the industry out of the state.
The Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians is leading this crusade through the court system.
In June of last year, the WildEarthers filed a lawsuit against the secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management claiming the agency improperly conducted lease sales on 70,000 acres of public land near Carlsbad and Hobbs. This August, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico decided that lease sales were conducted in accordance with statutory requirements and oil and gas activity on the parcels can continue.
In October, however, the WildEarthers filed an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court which will now tie up yet more public time and money. The relentless legal assault by WildEarth Guardians is the modus operandi of the deep-pocketed environmental machine known as Big Green, Inc. Each year, small regional organizations like the WildEarthers pull in checks for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities like the New York-based Park Foundation and the Washington, D.C.-based Wyss Foundation.
With the case potentially headed for review, the content of the August ruling is worth stating, because its merit stands. Senior Judge Robert C. Brack, who has sat on the bench for the District of New Mexico since 2003, wrote that amid the high stakes of the New Mexico oil boom, the court has one role, “to apply the law as it stands, without comment on the underlying policies.”
On those grounds, the District Court denied the WildEarthers’ request to vacate the leases.
What Judge Brack communicated in the decision is that our environmental arrangements are to be determined through our American process of legislation, not through litigation. The WildEarth Guardians have an environmental agenda that differs from that contained in legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. Importantly, the WildEarth Guardians, like all other groups of citizens, have the right to make their case for environmental legislation and convince the public that actions like lease sales for oil and gas should cease.
Fortunately, Americans, by and large, reject outlawing the use of our public resources. New Mexicans are reaping the fiscal rewards of a system that gives states a stake in the public lands within their boundaries. The state revenue windfall provided by the oil and gas industry has allowed for an invigoration of public investment in New Mexico. The state budget for the recently-closed fiscal year included, for example, a $400 million increase in education spending, with a pay bump for teachers being among the chief line items. The revenue boom also allowed for close to $400 million in improvements for state highways. The oil and gas industry is a benefactor that can provide continued revenue for education, health care and funding state liabilities, such as the $6.6 billion gap in the pension plan.
If the WildEarthers’ court appeal succeeds in forcing a vacating of these leases, it would result in the closure of 31 wells and the sacrifice of all future revenue from their production. It would also require the state of New Mexico to return hundreds of millions of dollars. When the WildEarth Guardians file these lawsuits, they are not doing so on behalf of New Mexicans; they are filing them against New Mexicans.
Jordan McGillis’ areas of focus include international climate agreements, the global energy trade and carbon pricing.