Oil and Gas Issues - Preserving our clean air heritage

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Editor’s Comment: This is the sixth in a series of columns addressing issues associated with oil and gas development in San Miguel County. The columns were written by participants in PROTECT San Miguel county, a local all-volunteer grass-roots organization. The group has been working with the county’s oil and gas task force for three years, has toured several existing oil and gas producing facilities, and has been collecting extensive research on the issues. More information is at http://PROTECTsmc.org.

One still comes across old local houses with outdoor sleeping porches built many years ago for tuberculosis patients who prized the clean and refreshing air of this area. But the pungent odors that pervade the oil and gas producing areas of southeastern New Mexico hint that our air quality could degrade with the arrival of the oil and gas industry. Recent Colorado and Pennsylvania studies confirm a significant increase in air pollution levels in areas with natural gas drilling.
Airborne contaminants such as fine particles, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are produced by engines in vehicles, compressors, and other equipment. Hundreds of chemicals escape into the air during drilling and hydraulic fracking. Sulfur dioxide, methane, and VOCs and other hazardous air pollutants leak and are released over the decades that oil and gas is extracted and processed.
Fracking fluids and liquid waste are often misted, or held in large open ponds and tanks, causing the water and chemicals to evaporate into the air. In a bizarre twist, these materials may join together while suspended in the air to create even more hazardous pollutants — like ground level ozone (smog), a known cause of respiratory problems.
Isn’t the atmosphere big enough to absorb and dilute the air pollution? No, treating our atmosphere as an air sewer where we dump waste byproducts can eventually lead to unhealthy pollution levels. Concentrations of airborne pollutants tend to be highest near the source of production, and residents close by are likely to be impacted the most. Pollutants can accumulate to very high levels over major gas fields with many wells, and be transported hundreds of miles by winds. Studies have found ozone levels in wide-open country around Utah and Wyoming oil and gas fields exceed federal standards, and are sometimes higher than in Los Angeles and Denver.
The indoors offers partial protection against outdoor contaminants, but enough still enters to cause health reactions. Showering and indoor water uses can also release pollutants from oil and gas-contaminated water into the indoor air, that is then breathed.
Aren’t we protected by state and federal regulations and inspections? Recent reporting by Colborn and others suggests otherwise. Many serious health effects can be caused by hazardous air pollution from oil and gas operations, at concentrations lower than previously suspected and below state and federal standards for outdoors and the workplace. Health effects include cancer, endocrine disruption, and other toxic and allergic responses. Many air pollution standards are for healthy, robust individuals at work for eight hours. However, residents near oil and gas operations can include vulnerable populations such as elderly, children, and immune-compromised — with 24/7 exposure. Thus, workplace air quality standards may not apply.
According to the New Mexico Department of Health Asthma Program, some of the highest asthmas rates and emergency department visits for asthma for children occur in southeastern and northwestern New Mexico. These areas of the state also have the greatest number of active oil and gas wells. No studies definitively link asthma to impaired air quality in those areas, but these data are suggestive.
While the oil and gas industry demands proof that air pollution from their operations is hazardous, they instead should be required to provide independent studies proving that this pollution does not cause harm. Little comprehensive research on health impacts has been conducted. Industry’s record of non-disclosure settlements with residents experiencing health effects further stifles the research.
State and federal authorities do not monitor the air quality around oil and gas facilities, unless there are complaints from the public. The nearest air quality monitoring stations are operated by the state of New Mexico in downtown Santa Fe and at the Taos fire station.
In 2015, new regulations by the U.S. EPA, known as Green Completions, will be implemented to limit the emission of four pollutants from oil and gas operations. While these regulations should reduce pollutant releases, they are probably insufficient to protect our air quality.
Oil and gas development, like other development, should not pose any nuisance or danger. So will air quality in our county worsen with the arrival of unrestrained oil and gas activities? Yes, therefore the County’s oil and gas ordinance should require substantial spacing, or set-backs, (e.g, minimum half mile) around oil and gas facilities. It should include adoption of New Mexico’s 2008 “Pit Rule,” and prohibiting open storage of fluids and liquid waste. It should require air quality monitoring of key marker pollutants to establish baseline conditions before operations begin. Monitoring should continue over the life of operations and after wells are abandoned, and be conducted downwind and upwind of roads, wells, and all other oil and gas facilities.
Exceeding target concentrations or increases above baseline conditions should trigger confirmatory monitoring and/or corrective actions. Frequent, unannounced, site inspections should look for violations of the new EPA emission standards, with violations reported to the responsible state or federal agency. All monitoring and inspections should be conducted by the county or its contractor, and paid for by the industry.
It is easy to take for granted the heritage of clean air that we all must share and breathe. But we must be vigilant and demand that it be treated with the life-giving respect that it deserves, and not be traded away for easy profits by far-off corporations.

For the past 35 years Brad Turk has investigated problems with air quality, ventilation, and energy in buildings, and performed some of the founding research in this field as a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is currently president of Environmental Building Sciences, Inc. He may be reached at Turkmwta@aol.com