As a mother of four young children, I am deeply concerned about how climate change and air and water pollution affect our health. This is why our family took an oil-and-gas tour south of Carlsbad with Earthworks, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting communities and the environment. They use cutting-edge optical gas imaging FLIR cameras to make air pollution visible and regularly file violations. The giant Permian Basin of west Texas and southeast New Mexico is now the top-producing shale field for oil and natural gas in North America.
Earthworks took us down Route 285, now called “Death Highway,” because, with heavy semi-truck traffic, fatal accidents are on the rise. We passed a crowded RV man-camp with license plates from Texas and Oklahoma serving as temporary housing for oil workers. Studies show an increase in crime, and higher rates of drug and alcohol use in boomtowns. I worry about the ripple effects through local communities and particularly the impacts on teens.
In the distance, long orange flames and black smoke burn from an oil flare against the blue sky. Using the FLIR camera, we see plumes of methane and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) drifting from the facility. This is a massive refinery complex the size of a football field with a metal maze of pipes, tanks and large smoke stacks. The noise of the compressors drowned out our attempts at conversation.
One hour into our tour, my eyes stung and my throat was sore. VOCs create ozone, which can trigger asthma attacks and worsen respiratory diseases, such as emphysema. Fracking releases chemicals, such as benzene and toluene, that are known to cause cancer. In 2018, in Eddy County alone, there were 733 oil spills (according to an article in the LA Times quoting the state Oil Conservation Division). Studies show that toxic materials from spills could move quickly and contaminate thousands of acres of underground aquifers that supply the region’s drinking water.
We cannot ignore the climate impacts of fracked gas. The Environmental Defense Fund found that fracking operations in the Permian Basin released more than 1 million metric tons of methane pollution a year. This wasted gas has the same near-term climate impact as 22 coal-fired power plants. Since methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, it is accelerating our climate crisis.
This May, atmospheric levels of greenhouse gasses hit an all-time high of 414.8 parts per million (according to scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quoted in USA Today). Scientists warn that as we get closer to 450 ppm, it will trigger even more frequent extreme weather events, and global heating will become catastrophic and irreversible. If fracking goes unchecked in the Permian Basin, it is set to unleash more than 55 billion metric tons of carbon by 2050, which would contribute significantly to global heating (according to OilChange International). I am pleased Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made methane regulations a priority. This is a good first step, but it does not address the root problem. We need a moratorium on fracking and a halt to the fast-paced build out of infrastructure, because it is inherently unsafe for the health of our communities and planet. I applaud WildEarth Guardians’ recent lawsuit to overturn the sale of nearly 70,000 acres of public lands for fracking in the Carlsbad region due to climate change danger. We must press our elected officials and the Bureau of Land Management to safeguard our climate.
Short-term oil jobs come and go fast, leaving destruction of the land in its wake and no stable long-term jobs for future generations. As a mother, I’m seeing that a different path is possible – if we demand that our policymakers pursue it. Every decision around a new fossil fuel lease, permit, subsidy or setback is an opportunity for New Mexico politicians to stop fossil fuel expansion, diversify our economy and champion a just transition to clean energy. We must send a clear message to the oil and gas industry that time is up.