The environmental group WildEarth Guardians has filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate Eddy, Lea, Chaves and Roosevelt counties in New Mexico as areas that violate federal ozone limits.
Ozone is an air pollutant that forms when volatile organic compounds react with nitrogen oxide in sunlight. The contributing pollution is common in industry and vehicle emissions, and wildfire smoke.
Elevated ozone can aggravate respiratory issues and create smoggy skies.
The petition, filed Tuesday as part of a Clean Air Act administrative process, said the EPA should designate the oil-producing counties as an ozone nonattainment area.
Jeremy Nichols, the group’s climate and energy program director, said federal and state regulators need to address a “pollution nightmare” in southeast New Mexico.
“For too long, the oil and gas industry has had a free pass to pollute in the Permian Basin,” Nichols said. “With this petition, we’re calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to put people and clean air first, not polluters.”
A nonattainment designation would require the state to monitor ozone levels for at least three years and develop an emissions reduction plan.
The Sunland Park region of southern Doña Ana County is currently the state’s only ozone nonattainment area.
State data shows that six other counties, including Eddy and Lea counties, consistently have ozone levels at or exceeding 95% of the national standard.
Chaves and Roosevelt counties do not have any state air quality monitors, but the WildEarth Guardians petition said “all indications are that air pollution from oil and gas development in these counties contributes to violations of the ozone” standards in the neighboring counties.
The group cited EPA monitoring data to argue that ozone levels have risen in the Permian Basin since the EPA’s last attainment designation cycle “because of the explosion of oil and gas extraction in the area.”
The New Mexico Environment Department is currently developing regulations aimed at reducing oil and gas industry pollutants that fuel high ozone levels.
Operators could be required to upgrade equipment and undergo more frequent site inspections if a state air quality board approves the proposed rules.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.