Climate change is a moral and spiritual issue causing unprecedented harm to God’s creation and people. Across our nation and world, severe storms, changing seasonal conditions, droughts, fires and other climate impacts are displacing vulnerable people, damaging our food and water sources, and impairing the livability of our communities.
Last month, I joined faith leaders and people of faith and conscience all over New Mexico and the United States, in testifying before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a new rule that would cut down on some of the toxic methane emissions that escape from oil and gas extraction sites.
This rule is expected to be finalized this year. It is a good start and with a few key improvements can meet the goal of what’s needed to protect people and our planet.
At New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, we have been working to get strong methane rules for nearly a decade. Our work is in solidarity with our state’s diverse frontline communities, where many residents are on the economic margins and disproportionately suffer from health problems and the impacts of climate change.
New Mexico has more than 100,000 oil and gas wells, concentrated in the northwestern and southeastern corners of our state; these wells and fracking platforms are responsible for much of the 1.1 million metric tons of methane gas emitted in the state each year. Much of the oil and gas extraction in our state takes place on or near Navajo Nation, Jicarilla and Mescalero tribal lands, and among Latino populations who are disproportionately affected. Environmental justice and care for future generations are enormous concerns.
I see the impact of oil and gas drilling everywhere I go when visiting our communities. Often, when my colleagues and I go out into the field, we wear ventilation masks. The air quality is so poor due to leaking from oil and gas extraction sites we can’t breathe and are concerned about toxic pollution.
In 2015, Pope Francis said we are on a suicidal climate path. In the years since, we’re not only still on that path, but our emissions have also gotten worse. Methane is devastating to the health of our climate: It’s now the second-leading cause of global warming from greenhouse gas pollution, and in recent decades — in large part because of a spike in natural gas drilling in North America — we have witnessed an alarming increase in the amount of methane in the atmosphere.
Oil and gas pollution also has devastating impacts on the health of people who live near where it leaks from oil and natural gas wells, pipelines and inside homes. It creates dangerous smog, and the toxic pollutants like benzene and nitrous oxide that leak alongside it cause or exacerbate health problems such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and premature birth.
Fortunately, New Mexico under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has taken steps in the right direction and is poised to finalize requirements that will ensure oil and gas companies sharply curtail how much methane they allow to escape by doing things like requiring all wells to be inspected for leaks on a frequent basis.
Which is why it’s so important the EPA strengthens its proposed rule by eliminating exemptions that would allow for many wells to be missed and many communities to continue to have to live with this harmful pollution. We need the rule to cover not just large producers but small ones — whose polluting impact can often be as bad or worse as larger sites.
The rule should make inspections more frequent and step up oversight, including allowing third-party observers to provide emissions data. It should institute stronger regulations over flaring — including banning routine flaring and placing strict limitations on unlit flares that vent methane pollution straight into the atmosphere.
St. Francis of Assisi centuries ago wrote that it was the responsibility of civic leaders to care for the common good. It falls on policymakers — including regulators at the EPA and other agencies — to uphold that ethical and moral standard to care for our sacred creation and common home. The time for action on climate has been here for a while. The EPA should take this opportunity to act on climate by finalizing strong methane pollution standards.