Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, is concerned about the air people are breathing in southeastern New Mexico. Nichols tracks ozone levels in Eddy and Lea counties, the state’s top oil producing counties in the Permian Basin.
In early July, a key ambient air quality monitor near Carlsbad was abruptly shut down, after a monitoring station operator noticed the A/C unit at the site wasn’t working properly and the facility was getting too hot for the electronics.
Nichols is worried about the incident because the monitor in question had recorded ozone levels in that area exceeding the federal standards before it was shut off. Now, it’s not reporting any data on air quality in the Carlsbad area.
“It basically means that people are not getting any information on the quality of the air they breathe,” he said. “And for a region like Carlsbad, which over the past several years has had really high air pollution levels, that’s pretty worrisome.”
High ozone levels are just one red flag for the region’s air quality amid record oil production. Methane emissions are also on the rise. The Permian Basin now releases more methane than any other oil field in the country, which experts agree is also bad for human health in the region.
The worsening air quality in the area is an issue that Nichols argues state regulators aren’t tackling aggressively enough.
“There’s a very serious air pollution problem that the Environment Department has really tried to downplay,” Nichols told NM Political Report. “At the same time, it has huge implications for public health, and also how the oil and gas industry is regulated there.”
WildEarth Guardians, meanwhile, filed challenges over a number of well permits recently approved by state regulators. The group argued that regulators approved those permits without considering the cumulative climate, public health and environmental impacts of future emissions associated with the facilities.
“In spite of violating air quality standards, they are still permitting more sources of air pollution in that region, primarily oil and gas facilities,” Nichols said. “They are cranking out the permits…and all these new permits are authorizing more emissions.”
Ozone levels at nonattainment in 2 counties
Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOx) are exposed to sunlight and warmer temperatures. Summer months are usually when ozone levels reach their highest.
“It’s a byproduct of combustion activities, the evaporation of oil and gas and other hydrocarbons. Those gases react with sunlight and they create ozone,” Nichols said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone is 70 parts per million. Nichols described the standard in terms of pennies: imagine you have one million pennies, some are shiny, and some are tarnished. Only seventy pennies out of the million need to be tarnished in order to reach 100 percent of the EPA’s NAAQS.
“That gives you an idea of how small the concentration is that can still endanger public health and put people at risk,” Nichols said. “At really low concentrations, it can cause respiratory irritation and exacerbate respiratory illnesses. People with COPD or other respiratory illnesses can be very vulnerable to ozone.”
There are currently seven counties in New Mexico where ozone levels are at 95 percent of the NAAQ standard. Using the penny analogy, that would mean there are 66 and a half tarnished pennies out of a million in those counties. That is the threshold that triggers NMED’s ability to target VOC and NOx emissions in those counties — which the department is doing through its recently released draft rules.
In 2019, two of those counties — Eddy and Lea — recorded ozone levels that were above 100 percent of the standard, meaning more than 70 pennies out of one million are tarnished in those counties.
“The fact that a monitor is in violation is a pretty big deal,” he told NM Political Report. “We’re not talking about one or two days of high ozone, we’re talking about basically three years of recorded high ozone levels.”
In order for an air quality monitor to be considered in excess of the NAAQS — also referred to as “nonattainment” of the standard — the monitor needs to record multiple days of high ozone levels, averaged over a three-year period. The monitors gather hourly data throughout the day. At eight-hour intervals, the monitor averages the readings. The highest eight-hour average is then recorded for the day.
To determine nonattainment of the standard, the EPA looks at the fourth-lowest daily high over a three year period, and averages those numbers together. If that value exceeds the NAAQS of 70 parts per million, then the air quality in that area is at nonattainment.
“It underscores that, if you have a monitor that’s in violation, things are pretty bad. It’s not a one-off situation,” Nichols said.
Methane emissions a growing problem
Methane, another byproduct of oil and gas development in the region and a powerful greenhouse gas emission, is also on the rise in southeastern New Mexico. The Permian Basin is experiencing the highest methane emissions measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin, according to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
The study, published in the journal Science Advances in April, found that oil and gas activities in the Permian have released methane at twice the average rate found in previous studies of 11 other major U.S. oil and gas regions. The study found 3.7 percent of the gross gas extracted in the Permian is emitted, which is about 60 percent higher than the national average leakage rate for methane.
The recent oil bust, sparked by a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and exacerbated by a global contraction in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, brought oil production to a screeching halt in the area. And yet, methane emissions continued at rates higher than seen anywhere else in the U.S. A second report released by EDF in July pointed to a likely culprit: malfunctioning and unlit flares.
Flaring is occurring more frequently in the Permian Basin due in part to a glut of methane being released through oil extraction activities. Operators opt to burn off the associated gas that comes up with oil, rather than transport it somewhere else or utilize it at the well site.
EDF researchers reported one in every 10 flares surveyed in three separate analyses this year were either completely unlit or only partially burning the gas they were releasing.
“When you have one in ten flares dumping raw methane and pollution into the atmosphere, it’s a clear threat to air quality and public health,” Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at EDF, told NM Political Report. “That’s especially concerning given that three out of four young children in New Mexico’s largest oil and gas producing counties live within a mile of an active well site, and those same counties all get failing grades for healthy air from the American Lung Association.”
David Lyon, a scientist at EDF, said in a statement that malfunctioning flares are a longstanding problem for the industry.
“The fact that we have not seen any improvement in flare performance over three separate surveys tells us that industry and regulators need to get much more serious about the problem,” Lyon said. “The best solution is to eliminate routine flaring altogether.”
Are state methane rules strong enough?
NMED has been vocal about high ozone levels in the state. It launched an ozone attainment initiative in 2019, and last month released draft rules that would target VOC and NOx emissions to help lower ozone levels. The state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department also released draft rules aimed at reducing methane emissions by tightening regulations.
Both Nichols and Goldstein said the proposed rules might not go far enough to tackle the growing air quality problem in the Permian Basin.
Goldstein pointed to “serious pollution loopholes” in the draft rules that “ would leave the vast majority of wells unchecked.”
“Closing those loopholes is critical for NMED to meet the governor’s goal of nation-leading standards that protect the health and climate of the next generation of New Mexicans,” Goldstein said.
Nichols argued that oil and gas extraction activities in the state need to be reconsidered all together to protect both public health and reduce climate warming emissions.
“We’re concerned about the [draft rules] being over-hyped as the be-all end-all climate solution, when in fact the real climate solution is to start keeping oil and gas in the ground,” Nichols said. “We want to see ozone levels going down. And if it takes adding pollution controls on oil and gas facilities in the interim, then let’s do it. But we want to make sure it’s as effective as possible.”