August 19, 2023

Federal legislation looks to compensate oil and gas workers for health conditions

Gabe Vasquez narrowly won the U.S. 2nd Congressional District seat in New Mexico in the 2022 Midterm Election.

Courtesy photo/Gabe Vasquez for Congress

Gabe Vasquez

U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez is seeking to compensate oil and gas workers and their families for health conditions associated with living and working in the fossil fuel industry.

Vasquez, a Democrat from New Mexico, announced the new legislation during a meeting with members of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrants rights group, in Hobbs..

Supporters said the legislation, known as the Energy Workers Health Improvement and Compensation Fund Act, is important for Spanish-speaking and Latino communities because many of the energy workers in the Permian Basin are minorities, including immigrants from Latin America.

“New Mexico relies heavily on oil and gas revenues, but lawmakers often ignore the grave cost to frontline communities and industry workers,” Marcela Díaz, Executive Director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said in a press release. “Immigrant families in the Permian Basin are disproportionately impacted by inadequate enforcement of health and safety standards, long hours, and extreme work conditions. That’s why they are organizing and demanding adequate compensation, safer and better jobs, and more public investments in their families and communities. We are greatly encouraged by Congressman Vasquez’s willingness to listen to and stand up for these essential workers, not just industry owners.”

The legislation would require oil and gas companies to pay into a fund that would cover health expenses for workers and their families that develop certain conditions. These include asthma, heat-related illness and other respiratory and cardiovascular conditions that can be caused by air pollution or exposure to oil and gas emissions.

Vasquez told NM Political Report that he met with around 60 residents of the Hobbs area, many of whom work in the energy sector.

“We are trying to hold the oil and gas companies accountable, in particular for what they have control over,” he said. “And that is the folks who actually help power their businesses and help support energy production here.”

Getting compensation for illnesses related to extraction can be hard, as evidenced by the ongoing efforts to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include New Mexico downwinders as well as people who worked in the uranium mining and milling after 1971.

Vasquez said that is part of what is at the core of his new legislation. He said New Mexico faces issues with intergenerational diseases caused by atomic bomb testing and that people are not getting compensated. Vasquez said his legislation would prevent similar problems from happening to energy workers in the oil and gas fields.

He said there is precedent for such an initiative, pointing to laws that require coal mining companies to pay into funds to support miners who develop black lung disease.

“Congress established that program after it became evident that those workers in that industry, in coal mining, were suffering while working in a national important industry that was making millions for private companies,” he said. “The same can be said for the downwinders who suffered the impacts of nuclear testing in New Mexico.”

This can apply to oil and gas workers, Vasquez said, and that“to support the energy industry, we have to support the energy workers. And we have to be proactive so that taxpayers don’t foot the bill later on.”

He said CEOs of major oil and gas companies, many of whom do not live in New Mexico, make “fat paychecks and get rich off the backs of New Mexicans, while the workers themselves are left to suffer the impacts of the industry itself.”

For example, he said the Exxon CEO made $35 million in 2022. Meanwhile, the average pay for the Exxon employees decreased by 9 percent.

“That pay disparity between the CEOs and the workers in the oil and gas fields is egregious,” he said.