As the presidential administration continues its efforts to repeal climate policies and deregulate the fossil fuel industry, thousands of New Mexicans — including children who attend nearly 100 schools and child care centers in the state — are still being exposed to pollution and face health risks because of oil and gas operations, according to new data collected by environmental advocates.
For the second year, the national environmental groups Earthworks, Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Alliance have produced an interactive online map that pinpoints every active oil and gas facility in the nation and determines the number of homes, schools and medical facilities within a half-mile of them.
In a year’s time, data from the Oil & Gas Threat Map show, the number of residents in these areas dropped by 4 percent — the result of a 6 percent decline in the number of active facilities. The number of schools in the threat zone increased by more than 11 percent, however, and the number of medical centers rose threefold, from four in 2016 to 12 this year, the data show.
According to the year’s data, about 138,400 people in New Mexico, or roughly 7 percent of the state’s population, continued to live near the more than 55,000 active wells, compressors and processing stations as of February. Within what the report calls this half-mile “threat radius” were 99 schools serving 32,000 children.
Most of the overlap between people and industry is concentrated in Eddy, Lea and San Juan counties, where the highest levels of extraction occur.
As part of the Threat Map project, the environmental groups released videos shot with infrared cameras that show misty plumes of gas spilling out of vents at facilities in Sandoval and San Juan counties.
“With this kind of pollution,” said Earthworks spokesman Alan Septoff during a teleconference this week, “operators say you are imagining things because the pollution is invisible. … But it is something real.”
Methane, an odorless and invisible greenhouse gas and the second-leading contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide, has been an increasingly central and controversial element of climate policy in recent years.
Studies in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Utah document links between the pollution from oil and gas operations — methane mixed with volatile organic compounds — and an increased risk of respiratory problems, neurological issues and cancer. Climate and health concerns also led the Obama administration to regulate methane emissions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management crafted rules under former President Barack Obama to limit the amount of methane that oil and gas operators were permitted to release, by requiring the installation of leak-capturing devices and increasing monitoring requirements. But the administration of President Donald Trump has sought to repeal these rules or block them from taking effecting until at least 2019.
The administration also plans to roll back pollution controls at coal and natural gas plants that are required as part of the Clean Power Plan.
Robert McIntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, took issue with the Threat Map project, saying Earthworks and other environmental activists “continue misleading campaigns of fear” about the oil and gas industry.
“The fact is that oil and gas producers have been leading the way in historic emissions reductions over the past several years,” McIntyre said. “… We support sound, science-based regulations for all oil and natural gas operators in New Mexico and always strive to comply with all state and federal laws to protect our communities while allowing our economy to continue to grow.”
Septoff said market forces drove the dip in the state’s production level, which also led to the decreased number of people who face health risks from the oil and gas operations. But with a multibillion-dollar investment by oil and gas companies in southeastern New Mexico’s Permian Basin this year, he predicted that the overlap of communities and production will increase.
“The oil and gas industry is just running as if it is not regulated at all,” Septoff said. “The pollution in the Permian is horrible.”
Throughout the state, groups also have raised concerns about federal land leases for fuel extraction near cultural sites, particularly the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, saying the Bureau of Land Management has yet to address how fossil fuel extraction will impact residents’ health, the environment and sites with significance to the state’s tribes and pueblos.
“Already, there is not enough being done,” said Gallup resident Janene Yazzie, the senior planner for the Little Colorado Watershed Association. “We cannot allow this administration to do even less.”
New Mexico recently implemented its own reporting requirements for methane emissions, but few companies have complied, and the state has no regulations on the books that require operators to reduce methane releases. Other states, such as Colorado and California, and some extraction companies have developed rules to limit leaks despite the uncertain future of the federal policies.
XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, which invested $6 billion in New Mexico this year, announced earlier this month that it was committed to reducing methane and other pollution. The company said it would report its emissions and comply with the EPA and BLM rules, even though ongoing federal litigation could delay them from taking effect.
“XTO has established a methane emissions reduction program that both ensures compliance with applicable regulations and expends considerable effort beyond regulatory requirements,” XTO said. “This enhanced methane program is part of a broader effort to advance XTO’s ongoing commitment to methane emissions management.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.