Oil and Gas emissions pose an imminent public health threat. During an EPA listening session for the upcoming oil and gas methane rule, we heard from our own Andrew Baker on the need for action to curb emissions from oil and gas. The full transcript of his statement is below.
If you'd like to provide your own public comment, submissions are open until July 30, 2021 at this link.
Hello, my name is Andrew Baker and I’m a policy analyst with Health Action New Mexico. I’m a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico’s College of Population Health, and I’ve lived in New Mexico since I was 4 years old.
I would like to thank the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing me to speak at this hearing today as a member of the public. I believe that the proposed methane rule is in the interest of the health of New Mexicans, and I would like to voice my support. Right now, there are over 130,000 New Mexicans living within a mile of an active oil/gas operation, many of whom are traditionally disadvantaged. As a matter of environmental justice, it’s important that we address emissions across all lands, not just areas with a high population density – more than 1 in 3 New Mexicans live in a rural area, so this issue is especially important for my state.
To demonstrate the effects of oil and gas emissions on our communities, I’d like to share some findings from a Health Impact Assessment conducted last year in Counselor, New Mexico. This assessment found that residents who lived within line-of-sight of an oil and gas operation (more than ten percent of the population) suffered respiratory symptoms after drilling began near their homes, which is consistent with national health studies. While these symptoms can’t all be attributed to methane emission, we know that methane is a precursor to formaldehyde and is found with other volatile organic compounds and emissions from the oil and gas industry that may increase the rates of these symptoms. Beyond those direct health impacts, people are anxious about the lack of information around the safety of their air, and the impacts of oil and gas pollution compound with health impacts of other particulate matter. I’ve grown up dealing with occasionally poor air quality from dust storms and wildfires, and it’s tough to be outside, but I couldn’t imagine dealing with that short-term stress if I had an underlying respiratory condition.
New Mexicans care deeply about our relationship with the environment – we’re the Land of Enchantment, and there are plenty of cultures that have been here before the USA was a country, that place an emphasis on environmental stewardship. There’s a deep understanding in New Mexico that the health of our environment is closely tied to the health of our people, but our laws have not caught up with that understanding. I’ll often run into people on the trail or on our public lands who have moved here for the climate, because our dry air helps with respiratory issues, because we’ve only got 4 or 5 days without sunshine per year, and because there are so many outdoor areas for recreation, all put at risk by methane emissions. As a young person, I’ve also experienced the generational anxiety around climate change and pollution. I know many people who have seen the lack of action on climate issues and used that to justify pessimism and nihilism. I have friends who have taken direct action to curb their impact on the climate – I’m one of many people who’ve changed their diet and behaviors to lessen our impact, and plenty of my friends try to stay up to date with the latest news about what they can do to improve their impact on the world, but it’s tough to make those personal commitments when the actions of industry are such an overwhelming factor in climate change. It’s heartbreaking to hear my friends say that they don’t believe it’s ethical to have children, but we are seeing significant impacts to our health and our climate from this pattern of oil and gas development, and it’s tough to convince them to be hopeful.
I had the chance to sit in on a meeting of the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Ozone Attainment Initiative during initial public comment back in 2019, and it was encouraging to see all the engagement on such an important environmental issue, but there were plenty of points in the meeting where members of the public had questions about the environmental impacts of oil and gas, or methane more specifically – and the line they were given was that the rules didn’t allow for measurement of methane directly, but that ozone could be used as a proxy. More recently, we’ve seen that some of the worst polluters in the country have used the opacity around those rules to self-report their methane emissions and downplay the severity of the harm to the climate and to our health at all levels. I’m hopeful that this rule can capitalize on that engagement and allow local advocates to learn more about what’s in their air and how it affects their health.
Finally, I’d like to urge this committee to look at some additional actions that can improve the health of our communities. That Counselor study found that residents often did not receive information on projected exposure, or times when emissions would be at their peak. That information is vital for people to make decisions about their health – the dose makes the poison, and if people can take actions to lower their exposure, we should give them the tools to do so. I can see a dust storm and stay inside, but we need special cameras to detect the presence of oil and gas emissions. It’s also important that we have more transparency around emissions compliance – during our last state legislative session we gave our environmental improvement board the authority to deny permits to producers who have not complied with regulations, but this information is often tough to find and not standardized. This is to underline that while state action is possible, we need strong federal actions, and really action at all levels to support this goal.
Again, I’d like to thank the EPA for addressing this critical issue. Increased commitment to methane emissions is important for the health the environment and all people, but especially for New Mexico and our historically underrepresented communities. New Mexicans have been begging for action, and I hope that this rule is a first step in a comprehensive process to protect our health and our environment.