Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Mapping shows many New Mexico residents live near oilfields | Local News

It’s no secret that oil and gas wells abound in New Mexico’s San Juan and Permian basins.

A lesser-known fact is the number of residents who live close enough to fossil fuel operations to put them at greater risk of health problems linked to breathing in pollution.

The environmental group Earthworks has released digital mapping data that shows 17.3 million people across the country — including 144,377 New Mexicans — live within a half-mile of oil and gas wells, a proximity that elevates health risks.

The data covers schools as well as homes and businesses that fall inside what is termed “the threat zone.”

Of the New Mexico residents within the higher-risk zones, 38,749 are children under 18, a finding that’s of concern because kids’ growing bodies are more vulnerable to the pollutants, according to the report.

Earthworks plans to submit the report as public comment to the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is revising federal rules for methane emitted from oilfields.

Conservationists hope the data will promptly help the agency to craft more stringent rules to reduce ozone-forming pollutants that accompany methane emissions. Ground-level ozone is a toxic gas that can impair breathing and, in large enough doses, damage the lungs and heart.

“The goal is to get this in front of the EPA — get it in front of decision makers in general,” said Josh Eisenfeld, Earthworks’ corporate accountability campaign manager. “This map shows 17 million living, breathing reasons why the EPA should be doing everything they can to protect people from the effects of oil and gas.”

New Mexico is an example of a state with high-density areas affected by fossil fuel operations, Eisenfeld said, adding it’s unclear whether the potential impacts to public health were understood when the drilling permits were granted.

FracTracker Alliance, a watchdog group that conducts geospatial analyzes on industry activities, produced the maps.

Eisenfeld said some might try to dismiss the findings as biased because advocacy groups generated the report. But the groups drew from census data and information compiled by government agencies and institutions, he said.

“This is all objective data,” Eisenfeld said.

Officials with the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association weren’t available Friday to comment on the report. The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico didn’t respond to an emailed inquiry on the mapping data.

A peer-reviewed study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was the basis for using the half-mile radius as a red line, said Jon Goldstein, state policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Benzene, a volatile organic compound, or VOC, is a known carcinogen and particularly hazardous, the Colorado study said.

Those who live within 2,000 feet of an oil operation and breathe in benzene in those concentrations have an increased chance of getting cancer.

Eisenfeld said a half-mile is not a magic number and is a conservative marker. People who live farther away could still suffer health effects from the air pollution, he said.

Roughly 80 percent of residents in the San Juan Basin in the northwest part of the state live within a half-mile of an oilfield. San Juan County has the largest number of residents in New Mexico within that close proximity, with 94,451.

San Juan County is the strongest example of another troublesome trend the report identified: environmental injustice.

Data shows 27,115 Native Americans and 22,355 Hispanics reside within the county’s higher-risk area.

“In San Juan County, more than half of the Native population lives within a half-mile of an oil and gas production site,” Joseph Hernandez, Diné energy organizer with NAVAEP, said in a statement. “That’s why we asked the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board for strict air pollution regulations for oil and gas facilities.”

In New Mexico, 71,788 of those living near the oilfields are minorities — representing almost half of the state’s entire number.

The county that shows the most disproportionate impacts on nonwhite communities is Lea, with 17,088 Hispanic residents out of the 25,532 people detected in the half-mile zone.

In a May online forum, a Carlsbad community organizer said, several years ago, she began noticing Permian Basin residents had increased rates of cancer and other severe health problems commonly linked to benzene exposure.

“A lot of people here, along with health care practitioners in the area, are unaware of the risks that come with living near oil and gas facilities,” said Kayley Shoup, organizer for Citizens Caring for the Future.

When she encounters someone who’s suffering from a serious medical problem, she makes a point of asking where they live, she said.

“Nine times out of 10, these people live in an area that would fall into a threat radius,” Shoup said. “And these are people dealing with childhood blood cancers, low birth rates, all of the things we can really associate with benzene pollution.”

The digital mapping is a useful tool that enables anyone to see how many people are in harm’s way, she added.

In an email, a state Environment Department spokesman wrote the agency has looked at some of the data in the report and that it affirms its effort to increase oilfield regulation.

“NMED understands that proximity to oil and gas wells has an impact on communities in New Mexico,” spokesman Matthew Maez wrote. “This is why NMED’s rules specifically target emissions from smaller, leak-prone wells and protects those living closest to development with more frequent inspections and leak detection and repair requirements.”

This is the tracker’s third iteration. The system was first used in 2015 to encourage the Obama administration to craft a federal methane rule and was updated in 2017 to counter the Trump administration’s push to roll back methane regulation.

The most recent version is aimed at pressing President Joe Biden into making methane rules tougher than they’ve ever been. Regional advocates say stiffer rules are needed in New Mexico, which is now the second-largest oil-producing state in the nation.

Map data shows Eddy County has 40 percent more people in the half-mile radius than in 2017. Lea County has 17 percent more. Both are located in the far southeastern part of the state.

Biden’s EPA is heading in a more stringent direction. Agency heads announced last year they would seek to regulate all existing oil and gas wells, whereas Obama-era rules covered only the ones installed after 2015.

Goldstein said the state’s recently adopted ozone precursor rule will require annual inspections of the lowest-emitting wells and quarterly checks on wells within 1,000 feet of homes, schools and businesses.

The rule is aimed at reducing the nitrogen oxides and VOCs that form ground-level ozone. It targets counties, including Eddy, Lea and San Juan, where ozone has reached levels considered unsafe.

Although New Mexico makes up a small portion of the affected residents nationwide — not unexpected given its relatively small population — the state should not be viewed as less significant or a lower priority, Goldstein said.

“It doesn’t mean that each individual in that radius doesn’t deserve the highest protections possible,” Goldstein said.

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