By Celerah Hewes and James Jimenez
July 3, 2021
The health of our communities depends not just on the health of its residents, but on the health and stewardship of its air, water, and land. As organizations dedicated to protecting the health of New Mexico’s children and families, Moms Clean Air Force and New Mexico Voices for Children appreciate Governor Lujan Grisham’s focus on public health as a guiding principle in her administration’s approach to a range of issues – from her deft leadership throughout the coronavirus pandemic to her commitment to reducing waste and pollution from the oil and gas industry. However, the work is far from done.
The governor set the stage for the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to put forward a strong proposal to protect our air and climate by cutting methane and ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released by oil and gas operators. New Mexico is home to some of the worst methane pollution in the country with 1.1 million metric tons of methane being released through venting, flaring, and leaks – the equivalent of all the greenhouse gas pollution created by almost 8 million cars per year.
Methane and other oil and gas pollutants contribute to ground-level ozone. With 97% of the state’s oil and gas wells clustered in just five New Mexico counties, it should not be surprising that all five counties are at risk of violating federal ozone standards. This health-harming pollution can damage developing lungs, trigger asthma attacks, and increase lung infections. Oil and gas operations also release hazardous air pollutants such as benzene – a known carcinogen – putting more than 130,000 New Mexicans who live within a half-mile of oil and gas development at greatest risk.
The governor’s proposal can go a long way toward ensuring the long-term health of our families and communities. Gov. Lujan Grisham and Secretary Jim Kenney deserve credit for being responsive to the concerns of people across the state by developing a commonsense proposal to protect our children’s health and future. However, there’s still more work to be done to protect frontline communities and address major pollution sources to meet the governor’s goal of enacting nation-leading rules to cut pollution.
Before the finalization of air rules, the NMED should make three key improvements to better protect public health. First, protect those living closest to development by requiring more frequent inspections to find and fix leaks. Second, require operators to control pollution during completion of a new oil or gas well, or when redeveloping an existing site.
Finally, NMED should strengthen requirements to cut pollution from the state’s second largest source of oil and gas methane pollution – pneumatic controllers, which are used in oil and gas production to regulate temperatures and pressure. The Department should require companies to inspect those devices for leaks and accelerate the timeline to retrofit that equipment with zero-pollution devices.
A burst of state and federal action to reduce methane waste and pollution has created an unparalleled moment for improving public health in New Mexico especially for vulnerable populations. We urge Gov. Lujan Grisham and NMED to protect all New Mexicans by enacting the strongest possible final rule to curb this dangerous pollution and protect the health and future of our kids.
Celerah Hewes is with Moms Clean Air Force and James Jimenez is with New Mexico Voices for Children.