ALBUQUERQUE — For one 73-year-old patient in our hospital system, the simple act of breathing has become so difficult that a short walk during a medical appointment caused his blood oxygen levels to dangerously plummet. A retired Marine, he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and uses supplemental oxygen but can no longer walk to his pickup truck without a struggle.
I can’t say with complete certainty why this patient’s breathing has deteriorated so much in recent years, especially since he stopped smoking about 15 years ago.
But I have seen too many patients getting sicker and sicker in the same ways. I see them in areas where the oil and gas industry exposes people to constant air pollution, from the San Juan Basin in the north to the Permian Basin in the south.
The science is clear that when oil and gas are extracted and transported from wells, methane and other pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, leak out. V.O.C.s are known to form ozone and may cause cancer and birth defects, and affect the nervous system. Emissions from oil and gas production also produce nitrogen oxides, which can exacerbate lung disease.
Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas, over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its warming power, though its life span in the atmosphere is much shorter. One of the fastest and cheapest ways to reduce these emissions and improve health is to prevent methane leaks, venting and flares, which would also go a long way in reducing ozone pollution. But many oil well operators just vent it into the air, or burn it off as a flare, which adds to the air pollution burden in communities near the wells.
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This year, the federal government has a huge opportunity to reduce methane emissions, improve health and slow climate change. The first and most important way is through a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency to cut pollution, including methane, from new and existing oil and gas operations nationwide. The prospective rule strengthens a 2021 E.P.A. proposal and would benefit communities like the one where the retired Marine lives. While New Mexico has already moved toward stricter methane regulations, the supplemental E.P.A. rule now under review would reinforce them and help reduce emissions that blow downwind from other states like Texas.
While the E.P.A.’s proposal is strong, the agency should make it even more forceful by banning flaring in all but a few limited cases. Just last month, more than 75 lawmakers submitted comments agreeing that the E.P.A. must enforce stricter limits.
The rule is not yet final, and some powerful voices, including the Railroad Commission of Texas, are calling on the E.P.A. to water down its key provisions. The oil and gas industry is also speaking up; it spent $124.4 million in 2022 on federal lobbying, including pressuring federal agencies on methane rules. The E.P.A. must not yield, and instead should strengthen the proposal so that communities can start seeing the benefits right away.
Outside of the E.P.A., the Bureau of Land Management has proposed a rule to limit venting, flaring and leaks of natural gas on public lands. And as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress passed into law the Methane Emissions Reduction Program, which will work in tandem with the E.P.A. methane rule to help drive down emissions. But under its new Republican leadership, the House of Representatives has been looking into an effort (mostly symbolic as long as Joe Biden is president) to kill that program, which would be a terrible step backward.
Stricter limits on practices like venting and flaring will provide immediate health benefits by reducing exposure to V.O.C.s among people who live near oil and gas wells, a group that disproportionately includes people of color and people living below the poverty line.
At age 73, the retired Marine with C.O.P.D. should be able to move around with some ease. But in part because of living near oil and gas wells, he’s lost that ability, and his quality of life is suffering.
As a doctor, my ability to help my patients is limited by the air they breathe. To prevent others from suffering not just in New Mexico, but in all the states, we need stronger standards to minimize the most dangerous types of pollution.
That’s why the E.P.A. must stick to its timetable and issue a final rule that includes both the 2021 proposal and the supplementary one no later than August. The Bureau of Land Management must also finalize its own proposed rule to reduce methane. Lives, especially those of our children and most vulnerable groups, are depending on it.
Dr. Dona Upson is a pulmonologist with the Veterans Affairs New Mexico Healthcare System and a professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico.
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