Oil and gas emissions in New Mexico continued to worry public health advocates and environmentalists as both the state and federal government sought to tighten restrictions on air pollution from fossil fuel development.
During a recent panel discussion with Climate Advocate Voices Unidos (CAVU) held on Facebook, Executive Director of Health Action New Mexico Barbara Webber warned that increased emissions from growing oil and gas development could risk public health in New Mexico, especially in front-line communities alongside extraction operations.
The New Mexico Environment Department planned to present its regulations on Monday for discussion and a possible vote by the Environmental Improvement Board, aimed at limiting ozone pollution from the industry by increase requirements such as leak detection and reporting.
Earlier this year, the State’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department finalized its rules intended limit emissions in oil and gas – requiring operators capture 98 percent of produced gas by 2026.
And U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was expected to release stricter federal rules as the administration of President Joe Biden sought to mitigate the country’s impact on climate change created by greenhouse gasses.
Webber said climate change was a global concern and had an especially significant effect on New Mexico, known as the second-highest producer of oil in the nation.
During the CAVU panel, she said in New Mexico about 139,000 people live within half a mile of more than 55,000 wells. There are also 99 schools and childcare centers at that distance from the wells, Webber said.
Those front-line communities see disproportionate health impacts from their proximity to oil and gas developments, she said, and regulations must be strengthened to specifically protect these communities.
That could result in higher numbers of asthma, birth defects and cancer, she said, along with the environmental impacts of climate change risking human life through events like floods and wildfires.
“We know a lot about what the health conditions are for people who live within that half mile, and it’s not good,” she said. “It’s a question of public will and saying no this is too important to our people because of the terrible health impacts.”
Nick King, pastor at the Carlsbad Menonite Church and a local environmental activist with the group Citizens Caring for the Future said curbing methane emissions in New Mexico was crucial to preserving natural resources and public health in his community and across the state.
“It’s first of all an issue of survival. Life and death,” he said. “We only have a certain amount of time before the pollution in the air will cause climate change to come and heat and make this even more unsustainable. For a lot of people, breathing is more difficult because of what we’re putting in the air.
“This is God’s creation and we all need to be all aware that dumping stuff into the air is just as bad as dumping it in the river or beside the road.”
He also argued oil and gas producers in New Mexico waste up to $275 million worth of natural gas each year that could be sold, money that could support public services like education and infrastructure.
“It’s a financial thing,” King said. “We’re wasting resources that could be sold.”
But to avoid further climate impacts, a recent report from the journal Science argued oil and gas extraction must be reduced – wasted or not – by 60 percent of oil reserves need to be left underground to meet the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius per the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Global oil and gas production must be reduced by 3 percent annually on 2050 to meet the goal, the study read, reducing extraction of fossil fuel reserves by another 25 percent.
“This implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable,” the study read.
About 81 percent of global energy demand is met by fossil fuels, read the study, but it will need to “decline rapidly” to meet global climate goals.
“The plateauing of production and subsequent decline will mean that large amounts of fossil fuel reserves, prospects that are seen today as economic, will never be extracted,” the study read.
“This has important implications for producers who may be banking on monetizing those reserves in the future, and current and prospective investors. Investments made today in fossil fuel energy therefore risk being stranded.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.