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Analysis shows thousands of New Mexicans at risk for health impacts from oil and gas industry

Oil and Gas Threat Map
Screen shot
Over 144,000 New Mexicans live or attend school within .5 miles of an oil and gas production site, according the the Oil & Gas Threat Map released Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

An analysis released Tuesday shows over 144,000 New Mexicans live or attend school near oil and gas operations. Environmental advocates are warning of health consequences and calling on the federal government to step up its regulation of the industry.

The Oil and Gas Threat Map is an interactive tool that shows data on those living within what it calls a “Threat Radius,” within half a mile of oil and gas production sites. Its co-creator Alan Septoff with the environmental group Earthworks says studies show people in this radius have more cause for concern, but not all will have negative health impacts.

“It’s not a bright line,” Septoff said at a news conference Tuesday. “It does not mean that if you’re living within the Threat Radius you’re doomed and if you live outside it, you’re safe.”

The health issues that can occur are from toxic BTEX chemicals, like benzene, which is emitted alongside methane and can cause cancer. Other studies point to increased rates of birth defects, and neurological and respiratory illness in people near oil and gas facilities.

The map shows about 75% of San Juan County residents live within this radius, including over half of the county’s Native American population, according to 2020 Census data. And almost 40% more people in Eddy County are living in the radius now than five years ago.

Advocates like Kayley Shoup with Citizens Caring for the Future in Carlsbad say they hope the map will empower residents who are experiencing health impacts and will also spur more federal regulation. While New Mexico has strong emissions rules, Shoup says, neighboring Texas has fewer industry regulations.

“Emissions do not know borders,” Shoup said at Tuesday’s news conference. “So, EPA rules will make sure that Texans are even better protected, but then also New Mexicans.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is developing a supplement to its Clean Air Act proposal to reduce oil and gas pollution. The agency plans to finalize the rule later this year.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays, 5-7 p.m.). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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