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Report: National parks in NM threatened by oil and gas development

Jirka Matousek
Wikimedia Commons

A report from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks sounds the alarm on harm from oil and gas development on four national parks, calling on the federal government to do more to protect them. Half of the parks are in New Mexico, the second-leading oil-producing state in the country.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park borders the Permian Basin, the largest oil-producing region in the country. The report highlights threats to above- and below-ground resources at the site, which has more than 119 caves, along with potential dings to the state's tourism industry, due to poor air quality.

The National Park Service in 2021 told the state Environment Department that the level of ozone at the park exceeds national standards and that — of all the parks it studied — the pollution at Carlsbad Caverns was the most impacted by oil and gas. NASA also spotted a massive methane leak, likely from a gas well, in the area in 2022.

The report is critical of the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to punt on its consideration of naming the Permian Basin an ozone nonattainment area for exceeding federal air quality standards. Doing so would have further curbed emissions and potentially drilling in the area.

The report acknowledges that the state’s new oil and gas emissions rule and draft rules from the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency are positive steps, but calls for an assessment of “the cumulative risks” posed by the industry.

Emily Wolf, New Mexico senior program coordinator with the National Parks Conservation Association, is quoted in the report as saying an uptick in drilling in the Permian Basin is "wreaking havoc on air quality" in the region. She told KUNM the state’s emissions rules are “nation-leading,” but said its regulators are limited by low capacity for enforcement, and that she’d like to see more be done in the Permian Basin.

“Holding accountable oil and gas companies, and basically just dialing way back and halting these new leasing and oil and gas drilling operations,” she said.

The report also highlights Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, a sacred site for many tribes, as being at risk from gas companies drilling over 37,000 wells and building 15,000 miles of roads in the area. In addition to the cultural resources themselves, the report warns of threats to the area’s air, water and public health.

NASA found a methane hotspot in this region as well, concluding in 2016 that the leak over the Four Corners was “primarily associated with the production and transport of natural gas.”

The Interior Department has proposed halting new leases for 20 years within 10-miles of the park, which the report calls “critical to resource protection,” though it doesn’t apply to existing operations. New Mexico also has a 12-mile buffer on state lands around the site, though it's due to expire at the end of this year.

The report also lists air quality at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and wildlife migration routes at Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park as under threat by the extractive industry.

Updated: February 3, 2023 at 2:59 PM MST
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmental advocates on Feb. 1, ruling that the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it “failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts from [greenhouse gas] emissions and hazardous air pollutant emissions” before approving 199 drilling permits in the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The court halted permitting in the area until a district court rules on “the appropriate remedy” for the violations.
Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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