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Federal judge denies injunction in New Mexico drilling case

A federal judge has rejected an effort by environmental groups to stall oil and gas development in northwestern New Mexico while they fight the approval of dozens of drilling permits issued over the past two years by a federal agency.

U.S. District Judge James Browning issued his ruling late Friday. An environmental group said Monday it plans to appeal.

The judge said the groups put forth enough evidence to cast doubt on the thoroughness of permit decisions made by the Bureau of Land Management but did not provide enough evidence to show the agency failed to take a hard look at the environmental effects of its actions.

The judge also said the preliminary injunction sought by the groups would not be in the public interest.

“The public would gain more from reaping the gains — an influx of jobs and capital and an increase in royalties paid to the state and federal governments — from opening up the Mancos Shale formation to economically viable drilling now, rather than waiting until the resolution of this case,” Browning wrote.

Jeremy Nichols with the group WildEarth Guardians said he was disappointed with the decision.

“While our environmental harms are dismissed as speculative, the speculative claims of lost profit and economic destruction from industry were accepted with open arms,” he said.

Browning’s decision stems from a court filing in May that sought to stop the BLM from approving permits to drill in the Mancos Shale formation.

Environmentalists say the BLM’s Farmington office has approved 265 permits since 2013 and more than 90 wells have already been drilled and fracked — the practice of high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals underground to free deposits of oil and gas.

The groups have said in court filings and letters to federal officials that increased development in the San Juan Basin has led to more truck traffic and dozens of new well pads over the past year, and that’s harming the region that includes Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The BLM has declined to comment directly on the litigation but says it carefully reviews all permitted wells to ensure compliance with state and federal laws. The agency also has deferred all new leasing within a 10-mile radius of Chaco park until the basin’s resource management plan can be updated.

The BLM has been working on a new plan in the face of an expected shale oil boom, but Browning’s ruling suggests it could be 2017 or 2018 before that proposal is completed.

The basin is one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S. and has been in production for more than 60 years. BLM officials say that since the 1950s, fracking has been used with nearly every well in the basin.

In his ruling, Browning also cleared the way for the American Petroleum Institute to participate in the case.