People of color, those living in poverty, elderly people and children could be affected by air pollution associated with oil and gas at a higher rate than other groups in New Mexico, recent research showed.
Researchers, with the Environmental Defense Fund, studied the demographics of “frontline” communities where people live alongside oil and gas facilities – many less than a mile away.
These installations emit air and water pollution which seeps into such local communities, the study read, causing myriad health conditions like cancers and respiratory illness.
Nationwide, the study showed 18 million people live within a mile of active oil and gas wells, and a large portion of that population were non-white, elderly, children or impoverished.
Researchers looked at population data from the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico and the Permian Basin in the southwest corner of the state – both active oil and gas fields the report showed had large populations of “marginalized” communities such as people of color.
The study used air monitoring to find where wells and other fossil fuel facilities were and compare that information with available population data.
Four distinct “clusters” of marginalized communities were discovered around fossil fuel areas, per the study, in southeast New Mexico and West Texas, northwest New Mexico, California and Appalachia in the American southeast.
The San Juan Basin sits along Native American communities within the Navajo Nation – the largest Indigenous reservation in the U.S. spanning about 27,000 acres in the Four Corners area in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
This area is largely populated by people who are Indigenous, the study read, and the high-density of natural gas wells and processing facilities puts them at a high risk of health impacts.
The Permian Basin region had a high density of Hispanics and those of low education and income levels, per the report, as the area is near the U.S-Mexico Border.
About 3.3 million Hispanic Americans, nationwide, live within a mile of active oil and gas wells, per the study, the most of any other group, and about 5.7 percent of the total U.S. population of that group.
Research showed about 457,000 Native Americans lived within that same radius. That’s about 8 percent of the nation’s entire Indigenous population.
Below the poverty line, about 2.9 million Americans lived a mile away from oil and gas production, along with 1.2 million children younger than five, 2.7 million adults older than 64, and 1.8 million people without a high school degree.
In comparison, about 15.1 white people live within a mile of oil and gas wells, per the study, about half a percent of their total U.S. population.
“This research puts numbers on what many residents living near wells have long voiced,” said Jeremy Proville, study’s lead author. “It also highlights the importance of comprehensive policies needed to help protect frontline communities from pollution.”
In New Mexico, such policies recently took the form of two rulemakings at the State’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMRND) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).
The EMNRD rules, which took effect last spring, focused on preventing the waste of natural gas as a commodity, banning routine flaring and venting and requiring operators to capture 98 percent of produced gas by 2026.
NMED’s rules expected to take effect this summer, targeted emission of gasses that form ground-level ozone, increasing requirement for leak detection, repair and reporting – especially among facilities close to residential areas.
But New Mexico’s two main oil and gas regions are along state borders, meaning the air in those communities could also be impacted by drilling and production in neighboring states like Texas.
That means the federal government and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must establish stricter, nationwide, standards for preventing pollution from oil and gas, said Oriana Sandoval with the Center for Civic Policy.
She said the recent policies in New Mexico could serve as a national model followed by the EPA.
“This study highlights how overburdened communities in New Mexico and across the U.S. can bear the brunt of oil and gas waste and pollution,” Sandoval said. “This is why the EPA must build from the approaches states like New Mexico are taking and finalize strong, comprehensive rules that include key provisions like frequent leak inspections even at smaller wells.”
Ahtza Dawn Chaves of the Native American Voters Alliance Education Project said federal action must work toward protecting the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous groups and minorities from the impacts of oil and gas.
“Navajo communities are located across a patchwork of federal, state and tribal lands where drilling affects public health and climate,” Chavez said. “We need to ensure that the federal EPA adopts strict, comprehensive air pollution rules that will help protect overburdened communities at the fence lines of oil and gas operations.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.