Breathing in Danger

Research maps health risks of oil and gas development as campaigns continue for reduced emissions

Each day, as Don Schreiber goes out to work on his ranch in Northern New Mexico, where he experiments with sustainable cattle grazing, he wishes he could just hold his breath. Then he realizes that if he tried, he’d be gasping for air before he passed the plume of air pollutants from the well sites on his land. Ranching on a classic split estate, where the federal government owns the mineral rights and leases them right out from under his grazing allotments, Schreiber and his wife, Jane, didn’t have a choice about becoming two of the 12.4 million people in the country who live within half a mile of an oil and gas well. Such people are considered at increased risk for cancer and life-threatening respiratory ailments.

"For Jane and I, it's been over 16 years now of dealing with these leaks, vents and flares on a daily basis. We cannot avoid them in our daily work on the ranch," he says. "You are shoved up against the pollution unavoidably. There's no way to occupy the land that you own or the land that you lease for your grazing permit without encountering leaks, vents and flares. We have that every time we step outside."

And every time he steps outside, he says, "We just go on through that big, horrible smell and hope we're not causing ourselves harm."

The oil and gas industry emits thousands of tons of formaldehyde, benzene, acetaldehyde and ethylbenzene each year. These pollutants have been linked to health impacts including cancer, anemia, brain damage, birth defects, respiratory irritation, and blood and neurological disorders.

An map at, initiated by EarthWorks and completed with the help of the Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker, overlays oil and gas well locations, emissions information from the EPA's National Air Toxic Risk Assessment and census data. They found a "threat radius" larger than the state of California.

"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," says Alan Septoff, strategic communications director with EarthWorks. "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."

In the state of New Mexico, 145,608 people are considered threatened, and 9,000 square miles and 89 schools affected. Of 15 regions for oil and gas production analyzed by the Center for American Progress for a report released Monday, the San Juan Basin in New Mexico and Colorado took the lead in emissions per well.

"It's just New Mexico topping another bad list," says Liliana Castillo, communications director for Conservation Voters New Mexico. Of the ranking, Castillo, adds, "There's value in knowing where a lot of emissions are coming from, but whether big or small, the impact to communities is still there, and that is still an important part, and it still needs to be addressed."

The US Bureau of Land Management and the US Environmental Protection Agency have been working on a trio of rules to reduce emissions from oil and gas wells, specifically targeting methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 87 times the warming effect in 20 years as carbon dioxide.

"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."

From a public health perspective, methane itself is not the big problem; it's the volatile organic compounds that come out of wells alongside it, says Dr. Robert Bernstein, a practicing physician in Santa Fe since 1979 and president of the New Mexico chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Volatile organic compounds react with the atmosphere and create ozone, and that's what fuels a host of chronic respiratory problems for people and has been linked to increased risk for heart disease. Benzene also comes from wells, and that's been tied to cancer.

"So why do we pick on methane? The strategies these companies use to reduce methane reduce the other toxins equally," Bernstein says.

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has spoken out in opposition to the BLM rules.

"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 in a commentary on

The commissioner predicted "large-scale abandonment" of wells along with "a wave of bankruptcies from small oil and gas companies" if the proposed rules are implemented. Income to the state from shut wells and closed business, he argued, is easy to calculate: zero.

Yet, the Western Values Project estimates lost methane has cost the state $50 million in revenue over the last five years

"The message that we bring from a business standpoint is that it is lost revenue, it's lost royalties, and hopefully that's the message that gets to the larger population in New Mexico. Some people in New Mexico may not care, strangely enough, that there's a methane cloud, but you may get their attention by saying, 'You know what, that's your money,'" says Glenn Schiffbauer, executive director of the Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commerce.

"We can't continue as if it were the 1960s," Schreiber says, referencing that pre-Clean Air Act, pre-Clean Water Act era. It's like seatbelts, he explains. Manufacturers fought them as unnecessary and expensive and now, no one would think of stripping them from cars.

"Jane said a couple nights ago, 'This just has to stop,'" Schreiber says. "The company, in our case ConocoPhillips, is making a profit at the expense of all these insults from their operations, whether they're health or environmental, in the climate, our loss of revenue, the taxpayer money wasted—all of those. They make a profit out of all of that, and it just has to stop."

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.