Counties in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico were identified as having some of the worst air pollution in the state by a national study, at a time of accelerating oil and gas development in the region.
Eddy County received at “F” grade, the lowest, from the American Lung Association in its annual “State of the Air” report released Thursday, while neighboring Lea County was given a “D” – both reflecting high levels of ground-level ozone in the area.
Those two counties are New Mexico’s most-productive for fossil fuels on the state’s western side of the Permian which it shares with West Texas.
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The 2022 report used research gathered from 2018 to 2020, a time of record-breaking production in the area that left environmentalists concerned it could lead to worsening air quality and health impacts.
Ground-level ozone is formed by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) interact with sunlight to form the cancer-causing, smog-inducing pollutant.
The State of New Mexico found the oil and gas industry to be a main contributor of VOC emissions in the state.
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Led by advancements in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and horizontal drilling, oil and gas operations boomed in 2017, ultimately propelling New Mexico to become the second-largest producer of crude oil in the U.S.
And that growth in extraction appeared to correlate with increased air pollution.
Eddy County had an average of 17 days per year of high ozone concentrations between 2017 and 2019, per the American Lung Association’s data, climbing from an average of 10.5 days between 2016 and 2018 after spiking from just 3.2 days between 2015 and 2017.
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Lea County averaged four high ozone days a year, per the most recent data, up from three days in 2016 and 2018.
Other New Mexico counties known for oil and gas extraction in the northwest San Juan Basin, San Juan and Sandoval counties, also received “F” grades from the American Lung Association.
New Mexico’s urban centers also struggled with high air pollution as the Las Cruces-El Paso area around in the southwest portion of the state was ranked as the 12th most polluted city in the U.S., per the study.
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The Albuquerque-Santa Fe area, New Mexico’s most populous, was ranked 22nd for air pollution by the American Lung Association.
“Both ozone and particle pollution can cause premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm,” said JoAnna Strother, senior director of advocacy for the Lung Association.
“Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.”
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New Mexico could see more oil drilling, pollution amid Russia invasion
Tom Singer, senior policy adviser with the Western Environmental Law Center said Russia’s recent attacks on neighboring Ukraine could have a dramatic effect on U.S. fossil fuels, almost half of which are generated in the Permian.
His comments came during a Thursday presentation before Carlsbad-based environmental groups Citizens Caring for the Future, detailing how Russia’s subsequent condemnation for the attacks and its removal from the global market could put pressure on U.S. and its most productive oil field.
Analysts estimated Russia’s exit from the international markets could leave a void of about 30 percent of Europe’s fuel demand, and the U.S. could be needed to fill the gap.
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“You really do live in the heart of where the U.S. response lies,” Singer said. “You live in a special part of the globe in the New Mexican Permian Basin which is the most productive oil and gas area in country.”
He said the conflict and nations’ desire to reduce their reliance on Russian fossil fuel – the second-highest producer in the world – also served as motivation to shift away from fossil fuels themselves and toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
“We’ve had these inflection points in the past where it looks like renewables are going to take off and it’s always beaten back,” Singer said. “Here we are again.”
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He said energy markets were shifting to a larger focus on liquified natural gas (LNG), which is produced in the Permian as a gas, shipped via pipeline to refineries and exportation facilities in the Gulf Coast where it is converted into a liquid.
The LNG is then sent to Europe where it is used to meet fuel demands.
Most of Europe’s LNG is imported from the U.S., Singer said, and the increased demand amid Russia’s removal could drive up production in the Permian, thus air pollution.
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He said U.S. natural gas prices already climbed in anticipation of expanded demand, to up $7 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), which in recent years averaged $3 or $4 per MMBtu.
“The real change that I see with the war with the growth of demand for US exports of liquified natural is this shift in pricing,” Singer said. “As gas prices move higher, you may see a move to drilling gas wells where oil is the secondary product.”
But whether the fossil industry of the future is focused on natural gas or crude oil, Singer said the State of New Mexico must increase funding for regulatory agencies such as its Oil Conservation Division to meet demands of growing activity.
The OCD and New Mexico Environment Department both recently enacted stronger controls on air-polluting emissions from oil and gas, and Singer said the State must put more dollars into enforcing the higher standards.
“If you don’t have compliance, then you’re not much better off than you were before the rules. The state needs to invest in those agencies,” he said. “The state needs to make sure all those agencies are working together to be the cops on the beat.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.