New Mexico, industry request to dismiss oil pollution lawsuit, rejected by court

SANTA FE, NM— A district court today [Jun. 10, 2024] rejected requests from the state of New Mexico and fossil fuel industry to dismiss a landmark lawsuit against the New Mexico governor, legislature and state agencies for failing to uphold their constitutional duty to control oil and gas pollution. The case was brought by Indigenous, frontline, youth and environmental groups.

“The court soundly rejected the state and oil industry’s attempts to prevent the plaintiffs from having their day in court, allowing us to continue to fight for our constitutional rights to a clean environment,” said Gail Evans, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “Overwhelming evidence of the state’s failure to control oil and gas pollution is right in front of our eyes. I’m confident the court will definitively enforce the constitutional protection of our state’s beautiful and healthful environment on behalf of the plaintiffs and every resident of New Mexico.”

The lawsuit, Atencio v. State of New Mexico, is the first to challenge the state for violating the pollution control clause of the New Mexico Constitution. Article 20, Section 21 requires the state to prevent the despoilment of air, water and other natural resources and protect New Mexico’s beautiful and healthful environment. Plaintiffs are also challenging the state for violating the constitution’s equal protection and fundamental rights clauses.

“Oil and gas pollution has devastated sacred places across the Greater Chaco Landscape, including my family’s land,” said Mario Atencio, a plaintiff in the case from Eastern Navajo Agency. “The health and wellbeing of my community is at risk due to the degradation of the land, spills of toxic liquid waste and air pollution from fossil fuel extraction. This is a flagrant violation of our constitutional rights.”

Oil production in New Mexico’s Permian Basin, one of the largest oilfields in the world, has increased nearly 10-fold since 2010, leading to a surge of devastating air, water and climate pollution.

“Living in the Permian Basin, I breathe unhealthy air from oil and gas production every day because the state has failed to put in place proper pollution controls,” said Jozee Zuniga, a resident of Carlsbad and an organizer with Youth United for Climate Crisis Action. “I’m glad that we will have a chance to show the court how our constitutional rights are being violated by the state. Today we’re one step closer to enforcing those rights.”

The New Mexico governor, legislature, state agencies and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce all joined together and moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the lawsuit raised political questions, not legal questions for the court to decide. The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, an oil industry trade group, has also intervened in the case on behalf of the state.

Siding with the plaintiffs, Judge Matthew Wilson upheld the long-standing principle that the court’s role is to interpret and enforce the state constitution and determine whether the state is complying with its constitutional duties, including the duty to control pollution.

“This failed attempt to squash our case shows just how closely state and industry have partnered up to prop up the fossil fuel economy, and just how urgently we deserve our day in court,” said Julia Bernal, executive director of Pueblo Action Alliance.

Additional statements from plaintiffs:

“For far too long, our state government has failed to protect our environment and constitutional rights, giving industry a pass to pollute,” said Ennedith López with Youth United for Climate Crisis Action. “As the youth in New Mexico, our win today brings us a step closer to ensure justice for our communities, sacred lands, and protect our right to a livable future.

“The court made the right decision by allowing a fair hearing for our case,” said Krystal Curley, executive director of Indigenous Lifeways. “We are here to challenge the state’s failure to uphold its own constitutional duty to control pollution. We will remain vigilant in our efforts to protect air, land and water by bringing accountability to those responsible for the mistreatment of the New Mexico Constitution and the sacred.”

“Frontline communities in New Mexico continue to suffer from the pollution that results from oil and gas development, permitted by the state,” said Tim Davis, a staff attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “Today, we take the next step in holding the state of New Mexico accountable to its constitutional duty to protect people and the environment. It’s time to put a stop to New Mexico’s constitutional violations in which the state protects polluters and their profits.”

Source: “Court Rejects New Mexico, Industry Request to Dismiss Oil Pollution Lawsuit,” Jun. 10, 2024 Center for Biological Diversity press release.

Updated: Jul. 16, 2024 at 10:40 a.m. PDT.

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