January 13, 2023

Environmental advocates push for stringent federal methane regulations during public hearing

Laura Paskus

Flaring in the Four Corners

Environmental advocates urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt the draft methane rules that were released in November or even to strengthen these proposals during a three-day virtual public hearing this week that ended Thursday.

These advocates told EPA representatives that methane emissions have both health and climate impacts that disproportionately impact people of color.

Wendy Atcitty, Diné (Navajo), spoke about the impacts of methane pollution on Native communities in northwest New Mexico.

“I know firsthand how harmful methane pollution for the oil and gas industry is to our health, safety, Mother Earth and Father Sky,” she said.

She spoke about growing up “surrounded by the protection of our tribe’s sacred mountains” and near the San Juan River.

“I recall growing up with these oil and gas pumps working 24 hours a day, looking like little grasshoppers sprinkled across the landscape,” she said.

Atcitty said these oil and gas operations have had both health and climate impacts on Navajo Nation communities.

She said methane emissions contribute to climate change, which can lead to more drought, intensifying wildfires and a loss of biodiversity.

In 2014, satellite images showed a methane hotspot over Atcitty’s home in the San Juan Basin. Additionally, Atcitty said the region has high levels of ozone which can lead to respiratory problems especially in children and older individuals.

Wells in the San Juan Basin tend to be older and lower producing. Atcitty said in San Juan County 23,000 Native Americans live within half a mile of one of these wells.

She said low producing, older wells are concerning because they account for less than six percent of the nationwide production but are responsible for about half of the emissions.

Atcitty encouraged the EPA to adopt rules that require frequent leak detection and repair and prohibit routine venting and flaring, as states including New Mexico have.

“Colorado and New Mexico have strong flaring provisions,” she said. “We need the EPA to follow their leadership.”

Rose Marie Cecchini from Catholic Charities within the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico also spoke about the impacts of oil and gas emissions in northwest New Mexico. She said companies “intentionally and repeatedly” leak methane into the atmosphere. This can be through venting or flaring, she said.

Cecchini said in the Four Corners region people are reporting health impacts such as increased rates of asthma attacks, lung inflammation, heart disease, cancers and respiratory disease and hospitalization. 

She said she also visited the Permian Basin where she said she saw a landscape filled with equipment and infrastructure related to oil and gas production.

Shawna Edberg with Hispanic Access Foundation said Latino communities and other people of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution from oil and gas industries.

“From start to finish, this country’s oil and gas system is harmful to Latinos and communities of color,” she said.

Edberg said 2.6 million Latino people live within half a mile of an oil well nationwide. And the impacts aren’t limited to just the well sites. She said pollution also comes from storage and transport of the products. 

“This infrastructure is located disproportionately close to neighborhoods of color, and many are almost literally a ticking time bomb,” she said.

She said that communities of color are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change including intensifying wildfires, storms, floods and drought.

Jessica Mengistab from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments said pregnant people also face increased risks associated with poor air quality, especially in communities near polluting industries. 

“Polluted air is especially stressful on even the most healthy lungs during pregnancy,” she said.

She said poor air quality is linked to increased risks of premature birth and low birth weight.

Mengistab said volatile organic compounds that are released alongside methane have been linked to cancers, cardiovascular diseases, developmental delays in children and respiratory problems.

“Predatory industrial practices and zoning have resulted in concentrations of fossil fuel industry in low-income, minority and Indigenous communities,” she said.

She said the practice of flaring off gas as well as leaks in equipment result in “a tremendous amount of methane being released into the atmosphere.”