Carlsbad's air pollution from oil and gas probed by New Mexico agency as industry grows

New Mexico is taking a harder look at air pollution in the Carlsbad area during a time of expanded oil and gas production in the southeast corner of the state that environmentalist and state officials tied to worsening air quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded about $59,000 in federal funds to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) for a project to monitor the air in Carlsbad for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), via the Inflation Reduction Act passed into law earlier this year.

Specifically, the air monitor to be developed with the funding will target emissions of benzene, ethylene, and xylene – air pollutants all known to form ground-level ozone known as smog and emanate from fossil fuel development.

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The need for such research grew along with oil and gas operations in the community, said Kayley Shoup with Carlsbad-based environmental group Citizens Caring for the Future.

A native of the city, Shoup said she’s noticed fast-growing industrial development in the region.

That resulted in air pollution to the area, she said, that agencies like the NMED and EPA must address to protect the people living in “front-line” communities like Carlsbad.

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“I don’t think many people think about all the oil and gas production in the area, and that it could be harmful to them,” Shoup said. “This gives them some really good data. They don’t know what’s in the air we breathe.

“If they have health concerns, this could help them connect the dots.”

Oil and gas operations on New Mexico’s side of the Permian takes place in two counties: Eddy and Lea. The industry is responsible for producing up about a third of the state’s budget every year.

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Shoup said the people who live in this rural but lucrative part of the state deserve protection from harmful pollution.

“It’s ridiculous that oil and gas provides such a large portion of New Mexico’s budget, but we underfund the agencies that oversee oil and gas,” she said. “That’s how you protect the communities that are producing this revenue. We give so much, we should be protected across all oil and gas regions.”

NMED officials with its Air Quality Bureau agreed that oil and gas was the primary culprit of the pollution in the state’s southeast region.

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The work to monitor for these and other VOCs will occur at the NMED’s existing Carlsbad air monitor on Holland Lane on the southeast side of Carlsbad near Happy Valley.

The monitor already reports methane levels and broadly levels of ozone, but the recent project will provide the ability for it to determine exactly which pollutants are present in the air around the city.

Similar monitors are operated by the NMED through southern New Mexico cities in Hobbs, Anthony, Las Cruces and Santa Teresa.

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These areas are known by the NMED to have elevated levels of ozone, at or near exceedance of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 70 parts per billion (ppb), which could soon trigger a listing of the Permian Basin area in “non-attainment” by the EPA which would restrict certain operations like permitting oil and gas wells.

Data collected by the Carlsbad monitor will help inform future planning and regulatory actions by the NMED, said Liz Kuehn, Air Quality Bureau chief at NMED.

“The data we get will tell us what concentrations are for these constituents. It may support more enhancements to our air monitoring network in the area,” she said. “This will give us more information. It will give us a great amount of high-quality data that will be used in our planning and regulations that target the source of the emissions which will be the oil and gas industry.”

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Air Quality Bureau Operations Manager Donna Intermont said the federal grant application NMED applied for was in response to concerns expressed by Shoup and Citizens Caring for the Future for worsening pollution in their community that appeared in lockstep with fossil fuels.

“It’s a known fact of the oil and gas facilities and emissions they put out,” Intermont said. “We hope to measure these VOCs and learn what’s there. Most likely it’s because of the numerous (oil and gas) facilities in the area.”

NMED’s regulations are designed specifically to protect the people of Carlsbad and other oil and gas regions from the effects of the industry, said Dan Bahar, acting director of NMED’s Environmental Protection Division – parent agency of the Air Quality Bureau.

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She said the new monitor will bolster that mission and held NMED better regulate fossil fuels.

“They are the citizens we are protecting. They’re the ones living in that area,” she said. “There are known health effects from exposure to VOCs. It’s public health that we’re trying to protect.”

But Shoup worried despite what she called proof that oil and gas was damaging southeast New Mexico’s air, and thus its residents, agencies at both the federal and state level were often underfunded and could not adequately enforce even the strictest of regulations.

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She called for the EPA to enact stricter federal methane rules, which the agency was likely to release this year, to create a standard between states that could limit air pollution coming over the border from neighboring states like Texas which Shoup argued did not have regulations as tough as New Mexico’s.

“They’re in a rock and a hard place,” Shoup said of the NMED. “They’re at thousands and thousands of wells with little resources. Sometimes they’re not as effective as they could be.”

EPA Administer Michael Regan said the agency was committed to address air pollution throughout rural, underserved communities like Carlsbad, hoping to reign in emissions from polluters like fossil fuel companies in the Permian Basin.

“The air monitoring projects we are announcing today, which include the first EPA grants funded by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, will ensure dozens of overburdened communities have the tools they need to better understand air quality challenges in their neighborhoods and will help protect people from the dangers posed by air pollution,” he said in a statement.

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Carlsbad's air pollution from oil and gas probed by New Mexico agency