Rural communities could be at risk during oil and gas boom, debate over air quality ensues

Environmentalist and industry leaders released conflicting data this month regarding the impact of extraction on air quality.

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Environmentalists say rates of asthma, cancer and other health ailments related to air pollution could be on the rise in the Permian Basin amid growth in oil and gas operations, despite conflicting industry research. 

Data from a report published this month by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), a Boston-based nonprofit said the maladies increased because of the recent oil boom in the area.

Lesley Fleischman, a technical analyst with CATF who also served as the lead writer of the study, said the research not only looked at measured air pollution, but the effects on people living near extraction developments.

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Research focused on six families respectively in San Juan County; Karnes and Reeves counties in Texas; Uintah County, Utah; Washington County, Pennsylvania and Noble County, Ohio.

“In the past we quantified the health impacts of ozone and toxic air pollution using data and models, and we found that oil and gas air pollution led to an increase in asthma attacks and a heightened cancer risk,” she said. “Now, this report tells the stories of people living with this air pollution every day.”

The report could expand the public perception of air pollution, typically ignored in remote areas far from major cities, said Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks – a Washington, D.C.-based environmentalist group who assisted with the research.

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“When we think of toxic air we usually think of cities,” she said. “Thanks to oil and gas industry pollution, we need to think again. These six families, and the people living in oil and gas impacted rural areas across the United States demand it.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported the world’s largest methane cloud floats above San Juan County and the City of Farmington in the Four Corners Region of northwest New Mexico.

In Eddy County, flaring, which occurs during the producing of natural gas, is one factor in the county that creates higher ozone emissions.

Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance said he can see smog hanging over his home.

The pollution in that area, the study read, suggests a link to a rise in childhood asthma and respiratory emergency room visits.

“Early on, concerned citizens knew about the nitrous oxides emissions from the oil and gas wells, but general awareness of the impacts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) didn’t come about until we started educating people in the area,” Eisenfeld said.

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In the Permian Basin region of West Texas and southeast New Mexico, the data shows VOC pollution increased six times, while benzene emissions – a product of natural gas – grew 68 times since 2011.

Residents in the studied regions reported various medical issues that researchers suggested were the result of VOC and smog pollution.

In Reeves County, Texas – just over the state’s northern border with New Mexico and in the Permian Basin – an elderly couple living in the town of Balmorhea reported trouble breathing months after several oil wells began operations near their home.

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Kelly Kuhns, a member of the Maryland-based Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments said such testimonials are evidence that pollution can have devastating consequences in rural areas known for heavy industry.

“When we envision our rural communities, we think of clear skies, open pastures, and the ability to inhale clean, healthy air. Unfortunately, the increase in oil and gas drilling has left our rural citizens facing the same poor air quality as we’ve seen in big cities,” Kuhns said.

“We know the effects of poor air quality – increases in asthma, heart disease, cancer risk, and more.”

A ticker counting tax dollars allegedly lost to methane waste is projected on the side of a building, Monday in downtown Albuquerque.

She said she hoped lawmakers would heed the dangers suggested by the report, as the U.S. Department of Energy opted to roll back federal regulations enacted in 2016 intended to curtail methane emissions, known locally as the “venting and flaring rule.”

The venting and flaring rule would have seen extraction operators paying more to limit leaks and put the gas to market instead of disposing of it through venting and flaring.

“Now is the time for policy makers to put aside partisan beliefs and put public health first,” Kuhns said. “We must strengthen commonsense regulations to limit methane and VOC pollution – this is no longer just about the environment, it’s about the health of our nation."

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Fleischman said the federal venting and flaring rule, officially called the Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Conservation, must be defended to ensure the environment is protected during growth in the oil and gas industry.

She said similar regulations have reduced pollution in other states, without hampering industry needs.

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“As a first step, we must defend existing federal methane pollution safeguards finalized during the Obama administration, and push for additional protections to cover currently unregulated oil and gas industry air pollution sources,” she said.

“We know this is possible because it has already occurred at the state level in Colorado, where standards have been in place since 2014 and haven’t negatively impacted oil and gas production.”

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But the regulations were developed using inaccurate and outdated data, said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Texans for Natural Gas, a Texas-based group advocating for natural gas production.

Data released by the organization suggested EPA measurements of methane release were lower than previously considered under the past federal administration.

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The EPA’s 2018 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which looked at levels recorded from 1990 to 2016, showed a decline in methane emissions since 1990, and Everley argued it proved methane emissions were not high enough to justify the added federal regulation. 

In total, greenhouse gas emissions across the country declined by about 2 percent from 2015 to 2016, read the report. 

The report pointed to shifts to natural gas from more pollutant forms of energy such as coal, along with rising global temperatures lowering the demand for heating fuel in residential areas. 

Between 2013 and 2016, the data showed methane emissions from petroleum production fell 17 percent, while emissions from hydraulic fracturing declined by 82 percent.

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Everley said the EPA now believes venting and flaring in the last year to be 54 percent lower than what the previous administration estimated.

“This new analysis confirms that methane emissions have declined even as the United States has turned into a global oil and gas superpower,” Everley said. “Curiously, the Obama administration used emissions data from the EPA to try to justify its 11th-hour venting and flaring rule, claiming those data were representative of what’s occurring on federal and Indian lands.

“At the very least, this raises legitimate questions about the venting and flaring rule, in addition to the legal problems that are still being sorted out in court.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.