Carlsbad has some of the most polluted air in New Mexico and the community could be getting its own air monitoring station to track emissions from oil and gas that could add to the problem.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) applied for about $60,000 in federal grant funds through the American Rescue Act to set up a monitoring device in Carlsbad to track greenhouse gas in the area until 2025.
The project was proposed to the agency by local environmental group Citizens Caring for the Future, made up of local residents in Carlsbad that advocated for environmental issues and tighter restrictions on fossil fuel production in the area.
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Carlsbad was identified by NMED as having elevated levels of ground-level ozone, a cancer-causing pollutant that forms smog and is created when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – released from oil and gas facilities – interact with sunlight.
If approved, the station would monitor for contaminants like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, all known as ozone “precursors,” meaning they can lead to its formation.
Southeast New Mexico’s other Permian Basin population center Hobbs was also identified as having high ozone levels, and critics of the industry said more monitoring and subsequent emissions restrictions were needed to improve air quality in the region.
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Kayley Shoup, an organizer with Citizens Caring for the Future said data generated by the monitoring system would increase awareness for the environmental impacts of oil and gas, the largest industry in area and a main driver of New Mexico’s economy.
She said if Carlsbad’s ozone levels continue to exceed the threshold of 70 parts per billion set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would step in to provide its own federal monitoring and restrict operations in the area that could lead to more pollution.
That’s an action Shoup worried might not begin improving the air Carlsbadians breathe for another three years, when the funding NMED applied for would sunset.
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“We have this problem right now. We wanted to have some monitoring in our community for these air pollutants,” she said. “These are things that are known as carcinogens. We want to have data to show people this what we have in our community.”
While methane, a greenhouse gas well-known to originate from oil and gas along with cars and trucks that combust the fossil fuels produced in the Permian, is heavily monitored by the state, Shoup said the ozone-forming VOCs are not as heavily researched and she hoped the project would help bridge that gap.
The information generated could not only inform public policy, she said, but also educate residents in the area as to what they are being exposed to and when to take action to protect themselves.
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“This is what we’re exposed to,” she said. “We’re hoping people can take real world action to protect themselves.”
Data from the station would be posted to NMED’s website, giving residents of front-line communities like Carlsbad that live alongside the oilfield immediate access.
“Hopefully with the level of awareness, people will begin to advocate more. We want more protection, we want more enforcement,” Shoup said. “It’s not only about global warming; it is about protecting us in our community. We’ve seen impacts on our lives. This is just trying to say it’s not just in our head, here’s the data.”
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The station would be set up on the western edge of Carlsbad, downwind from oil and gas operations south and east of the city in the Permian Basin.
In a February letter from NMED to Citizens Caring for the Future, the agency voiced support for the project and its intent to seek the needed federal funds.
“This project will provide valuable data on specific toxics emissions in the region that may contribute to ozone formation and impact public health and the environment,” read the letter. “NMED is eager to conduct this work in collaboration with the affected communities, which will continue to promote a relationship of trust and partnership.”
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Communities along within the oilfield like Carlsbad and Hobbs were “disproportionately” affected by oil and gas emissions, the letter read, while the industry led the state to become the third-largest domestic oil producer and make up more than a third of New Mexico’s state revenue.
More investment was needed, read the letter, to protect nearby residents from a problem also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“New Mexico is the third largest oil producing state and shares borders with multiple oil and gas producing states, which results in disproportionate impacts from oil and gas sector emissions on communities in proximity to the producing regions,” read the letter.
“These communities, specifically in southeastern New Mexico, have long expressed public health concerns over emissions from the oil and gas sector.”
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In a March 21 letter from New Mexico’s four Democrat congresspeople: U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, along with U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernandez and Melanie Stansbury, they urged the EPA to approve the grant application and fund the project.
“Data collected will help NMED plan and execute control strategies that help reduce emissions that contribute to public health concerns and possibly other environmental damages,” the congresspeople wrote.
“Energy development should not jeopardize public health and well-being or unnecessarily impact natural, cultural, and historical resources.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.