Report: Living near oil, gas operations increases cancer risk

The portion of the Oil and Gas Threat Map showing New Mexico. Areas of darker red indicate regions with a higher health risk. View the full map here.

More than 145,000 New Mexicans who live within a half-mile of oil and gas operations face a higher risk of cancer and respiratory diseases, according to data from a new mapping project.

The Oil and Gas Threat Map was released Wednesday by environmental advocacy groups Clean Air Task Force and Earthworks. Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Census Bureau, the groups found more than 12.4 million people nationwide live within a half-mile of operating oil and gas wells, where methane and volatile organic chemical emissions are most potent and more likely to cause health problems.

In New Mexico, where most of the 58,777 active oil and gas wells are concentrated in San Juan County in the state’s northwestern corner and Lea and Eddy counties in the southeastern corner, the half-mile “threat” radius includes 89 schools and four medical centers, the map shows. The oil operations in those counties span more than 9,000 square miles.

Alan Septoff, a spokesman for Earthworks, said during a teleconference Wednesday that negative health effects from oil and gas wells could stretch well beyond the hot spots on the map, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the people inside those areas are “doomed.”

“It’s not a bright line,” he said.

Still, he said, “If you live within a half-mile, you have serious cause for concern, and you may be affected. You should be checking [your health].”

Swarms of yellow dots on the map swirl like weather patterns over the two corners of the state that are home to the most at-risk populations. Community advocates noted those are predominantly low-income people with less access to medical care.

Dark red squares in the same regions mark the high levels of methane emissions there.

Methane, the main component in natural gas, is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas in the nation, after carbon dioxide, but it is 86 times more potent than CO2 in the first 20 years after it is released. A 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hangs over the Four Corners region, including San Juan County, forming the most dense concentration of the pollutant in the nation.

In the San Juan region, data indicate 77 percent of the population is at risk of adverse health effects because of oil and gas operations. But the Oil and Gas Threat Map shows communities in Texas, Kansas and Pennsylvania face an even higher risk.

A national study found that seven percent of New Mexico's population is at higher risk for cancer and respiratory disease because they live close to oil and gas operations. Hover over this interactive map to see the break down for each county affected in the country. Graphic by Dan Schwartz/The New Mexican

Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, which partnered on the study, said the difference could be because of a lower population density in the San Juan region or because of discrepancies between the production levels that operators report to the EPA and how much methane the wells actually leak.

Lesley Fleischman, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, said a study showing the methane hot spot over the Four Corners area, released in 2014, might reflect lower risk factors than actually exist.

Dr. William Mac Bowen, at La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, said volatile organic compounds released with oil and gas operations, such as formaldehyde and benzene, have been linked to cancers, brain damage and birth defects.

“Although data is difficult to pin on these things with 100 percent association,” he said, “we do have emerging data that they really do contribute.”

A 2014 study found that babies born within a 10-mile radius of oil and gas operations were more likely to be born preterm and at a lower birth rate, both conditions linked to infant mortality. The study, cited in the Oil and Gas Threat Map report, was conducted by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and looked at 124,842 babies born in Colorado over a 10-year period.

During Wednesday’s teleconference, environmental groups said the Oil and Gas Threat Map will allow the public to take a close look at personal health risks from drilling operations. People can enter a specific address or take a broader look at risk factors on a county, state or national scale.

The six-month data project is part of a campaign by environmental groups nationwide to increase support for two recently proposed federal rules that would impose methane-capturing regulations on oil and gas operators.

Regulations finalized by the EPA in early May would require installation of emissions-capturing technology and leak monitoring of all new oil and gas wells. They also would require operators to limit methane-venting practices.

The Bureau of Land Management proposed similar regulations in February that would curb methane emissions on all existing and new oil and gas wells on federal and tribal land. A final draft of those rules is expected later this summer.

Environmental advocates and New Mexico’s congressional delegation have endorsed both sets of rules as important protections for human health and the environment, but many in the oil and gas industry have said the rules will create a burdensome cost to an industry already in unprecedented decline.

Bowen said the government and the industry should be held accountable.

“These populations that are at risk are not responsible for this exposure,” he said. “They are relying on industry and government to protect them and limit the negative effect of these compounds.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or

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