Where There's Fire

Map shows where methane emissions from natural gas and oil wells put public health at risk

Nationwide, 12.4 million people live within half a mile of an oil or gas well, and within that radius, they are at risk for increased incidence of cancer and life-threatening respiratory ailments. An online map, oilandgasthreatmap.com, initiated by EarthWorks and completed with the help of the Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker, puts a visual on that development in the US and its effects on the 238 counties that have seen increased cancer risks, contributed to by four known carcinogens used in the oil and gas industry: formaldehyde, benzene, acetaldehyde and ethylbenzene. The oil and gas industry emits thousands of tons of these pollutants each year, and they've been linked to health impacts including cancer, anemia, brain damage, birth defects, respiratory irritation, and blood and neurological disorders.

The US Bureau of Land Management and the US Environmental Protection Agency are crafting a suite of rules to deal with oil and gas well emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide (over a 20-year period).

"This is a being-a-better-neighbor rule," says Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It allows oil and gas to do the good work that they do for our communities, keeping the lights on and our vehicles moving, but at the same time doing it in a cleaner way that doesn't affect our communities as much."

The release of the Oil and Gas Threat Map is part of an effort to increase public awareness about proximity of these wells to homes, schools and medical facilities, given that people who live closer to these wells are more likely to be concerned about them, says Alan Septoff, strategic communications director with EarthWorks. The map overlays publicly available data on oil and gas well locations and emissions information from the EPA's National Air Toxic Risk Assessment with Census data to show countywide risks to the public. Cumulatively, the area of land across the nation within half a mile of an oil or gas well, in the "threat radius" for increased health effects, is larger than the state of California. That's still a rough estimation, based on statistical likelihoods.

"It's not a bright line; it doesn't mean that inside half a mile, you're doomed and outside half a mile, you're safe," Septoff says. "It means that inside half a mile is where there are the most strongly correlated health impacts to living within oil and gas development. If you live within half a mile, you have serious cause for concern, and you should be checking."

Users can hop on the website, zoom into their states and counties, and even identify the names of schools and medical facilities as well as demographics of threatened population, including median income. Typically, these effects concentrate in lower income communities, and they are not something a physician could prescribe lifestyle changes to address, such as quitting smoking or exercising more.

In the state of New Mexico, 145,608 people (out of 2 million) are considered threatened; 46,592 of them are Latino/Hispanic. The total area affected covers 9,000 square miles, most it concentrated in San Juan, Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties, and includes 89 schools.

"These air toxins do travel a little, so there are a few counties where you don't see facilities but do see increased risk," says Lesley Fleischman, technical analyst with the Clean Air Task Force. "For the most part, the impacts are pretty localized."

Later this year, the Clean Air Task Force will be releasing a report on the same analysis of ozone data, contributor to smog and linked to many health issues, including asthma. That pollutant, by contrast, does travel much farther than methane. Santa Fe, often touted as having some of the cleanest air in the country, saw its rating from the American Lung Association drop from an A level to a B level this year after exceeding EPA standards for ozone, 70 parts per billion, for one day.

The solution for methane, Feibelman points out, simply means capturing more of the methane emitted from these wells, which would increase industry earnings, add to state tax revenue, improve community health and create jobs. Some of the 12 companies in New Mexico working on this issue have even offered to do the installations for free, in exchange for a share of the earnings generated.

"There is a voluntary program the EPA has implemented, but nationwide only 40 or so members of the industry have actually signed up for that program," Feibelman says. "A lot of times, what we hear from members of industry is that it's hard to change the way that you do things, and these rules can really help, and we've got a good example of that just north of that in Colorado."

Colorado has implemented methane regulations, and despite protests that they would kill the industry, oil and gas production in the state has continued to climb.

"The reason that this map is necessary and the reason that we're appealing to EPA and BLM to deal with this is because industry actually has been uncooperative on this issue," Septoff says. "The oil and gas industry has said repeatedly that they don't need regulations because they're dealing with the problem, but when asked to make concrete commitments to do specific things to deal with the problem, they have refused to do that. So this is just sharing information about what that has wrought. … This is just about the facts and what the science is telling us now, and what happens with it is a different story."

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has spoken out in opposition to the BLM rules, which would apply to oil and gas facilities on all public lands, blaming a significant amount of the venting and flaring on delayed approvals from the BLM for pipelines to move natural gas from New Mexico's oil fields.

"It is hypocritical for the BLM to find fault with oil and gas producers and impose essentially punitive and costly new rules when the agency's own actions have been responsible for a large part of the problem," Dunn said in an April press release. As the argument continued, he wrote later in a commentary on nmpolitics.net that new rules would decrease income, translating to lost revenues.

"The correlation is quite simple: Regulations cost money. If there were a cost-effective way for oil and gas producers to capture every molecule of natural gas that is currently being vented or flared, I believe that the industry would be doing it already," Dunn wrote. "If BLM's proposed rules are implemented, the Land Office will most likely see a large-scale abandonment of oil and gas wells on State Trust Lands, with marginal wells being pushed beyond their economic thresholds. This would be followed by a wave of bankruptcies from small oil and gas companies; we've already seen at least two dozen such bankruptcies in the past year." Income from shut wells and closed business, he argued, is easy to calculate: zero.

That stance has been rebuffed by Conservation Voters New Mexico; the New Mexico Wildlife Federation; Moms Clean Air Force; and Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors. The Western Values Project has estimated the state lost $50 million in revenue over the last five years to methane that has escaped or been deliberately vented from oil and gas facilities, which can leak or vent the gas at multiple stages in drilling and processing wells.

The EPA recently finalized its rule for new and modified sources of methane, and the agency has proposed one for existing sources. That latter category is expected to produce 90 percent of the methane pollution we'll see in 2018, Feibelman says.

A community webinar for members of the public will be held at 7 pm Tuesday, June 21. Details are available at riograndesierraclub.org.

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