Emissions from the oil and gas industry threaten the health of more than a third of the people who call Eddy County home, and environmentalists are calling for stricter federal rules to protect the air they breathe.
A “threat map” was published Tuesday by national environmental group Earthworks showing 23,292 Eddy County residents live within half a mile of oil and gas extraction – an area the group referred to as the “threat radius.” That’s 39 percent of the county’s population of about 60,000, per the latest U.S. Census data.
Neighboring Lea County, New Mexico’s other county within the Permian Basin – the U.S.’ most active oilfield – had 25,532 people in the threat radius, about 35 percent of that county’s population of about 73,000.
Statewide, 144,377 New Mexicans live within a threat radius, per the report, which encompasses 8,799 acres.
While that total ranks New Mexico, one of the U.S.’ most oil-productive states, at 15th for the population in the radius, it also means 7 percent of the state’s population is within the threat radius.
Kayley Shoup, a Carlsbad resident and organizer with local environmental group Citizens Caring for the Future said “frontline” communities like her own alongside oil and gas development said that while the industry supports the local economy, its profits should not be prioritized over public health.
“In the Permian, it feels like we’re living on a runaway train,” Shoup said. “We have geopolitics that are pushing production. The health issues can feel very overwhelming.”
Those issues can include cancers, respiratory illness, birth defects and even death from heavy exposure to pollutants like benzene, a volatile organic compound (VOC) known to be a main product of oil and gas extraction.
Anne Epstein, a clinical associate professor at Texas Tech University who works as a consultant on oil and gas pollution, said benzene’s health impacts are well documented and worsen the closer one lives to extraction facilities.
“No one added this. It is an indisputable cause of cancer. It is a clear cause of leukemia. Any intense exposure can cause death,” she said.
“We know that people get sick from wells. This is actually bad enough to be killing people. There is a strong suggestion that it is air pollution driving this data.”
To address worsening air quality in New Mexico, Shoup said the federal Environmental Protection Agency must develop new rules mirrored after state policy such as in New Mexico to ensure operators follow the rules and that policy is standardized across state lines.
Southeast New Mexico’s oil and gas region abuts West Texas’ and the two states share the Permian Basin, meaning air pollution from across state lines could impact New Mexico despite controls enforced at the state level.
“It would be great to have federal rules to bolster what New Mexico already has,” Shoup said. “Pollution does not follow borders.”
Eddy and Lea counties were already identified by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) as having elevated levels of cancer-causing, ground-level ozone which is created when VOCs like benzene interact with sunlight.
This prompted the State to recently enact regulation at both NMED and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to capture more gas produced during extraction, monitor emissions and increase inspections and repairs.
But Shoup questioned the state’s ability to adequately enforce the news rules on about 57,000 active oil and gas wells in the region, and argued the federal government should take action as well.
“There are thousands of wells, but there is not a single air inspector in New Mexico that lives in the (Permian Basin) area,” she said. “The state largely relies on companies to self-report their emissions. This is not always the most effective way.”
And with increased concern for climate change and the pollution causing it, Shoup foresaw a future with lessening demand for the fossil fuels produced in the region.
She said the State and U.S. must work to conserve its public land for other uses and economic diversity.
“As time goes on and we are going to be addressing the climate crisis, the demand for fossil fuels is going to go down,” Shoup said. “We need to plan for the future so we can diversify our economy in the future. New Mexico is a great place for wind and solar, but we need to have the land to do those things.”
Without stricter policy, Jon Goldstein with the Environmental Defense Fund said New Mexico will lose out on $275 million worth of natural gas each year, amounting to about $43 million in revenue for the state.
He said the federal government should step in to end the waste and protect the health of citizens across New Mexico and the nation.
“Methane is a big problem in New Mexico, but New Mexico isn’t an island,” Goldstein said. “The air isn’t just from New Mexico; it blows across the border too. That creates the need for federal rules to protect New Mexicans and all Americans.”