In the town of Douglas, south of Gillette, Wyo., oil and gas production on public lands are within view of local homes. Photo: Kristi Mogen
Congress continues its attack on environmental safeguards and want to eliminate an Obama-era reform to stop waste and pollution from federal oil and gas wells. Targeting this reform will be harmful to tens of thousands of people living out West that may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.
Just weeks into the new administration, anti-conservationists in Congress, backed by the oil and gas industry, introduced a bill (S.J. Res. 11) to repeal the Bureau of Land Management Methane Waste and Prevention Rule that stops the rampant natural gas waste and methane pollution from oil and gas operations on public lands. We must keep environmental rules in place that help stop unnecessary waste and harmful pollution from federal oil and gas wells.
A set of interactive maps created by Fractracker, The Wilderness Society and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of federal oil and gas wells. All together, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the five western states examined.
The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Many have spoken out against repealing this crucial pollution standards, calling on their senators to stop the rollback of an important environmental and climate policy.
Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.
Air pollution from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands is not only a danger to nearby communities but also communities further away as pollution travels downwind, even up to 150 miles away. Fossil fuel production creates volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that combine to form dangerous ozone smog, which increases asthma attacks in children while worsening cancer risks and respiratory issues (like lung disease and emphysema). Leaking methane as well as methane that is intentionally vented or flared from natural gas production worsens the smog.
The proximity of these wells poses a serious problem to human health, and yet the wells on these maps only represent 35 percent of pollution producing wells in each state. Private lands make up another 65 percent. Together, oil and gas leases on public and private lands create a potent mix of pollution for nearby communities.
Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits. But nearly 16,000 people—the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state—are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.
Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65 percent of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.
In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.
State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.
With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space. Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico—40 percent of the population in San Juan County—live within a half mile of a well. Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20 percent Hispanic, almost 40 percent Native American and over 20 percent living in poverty.
Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties—with around 50 percent of the population Hispanic—are threatened by toxic air pollution.
Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40 percent of the coal produced in the United States. Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.
Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah's counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah—where the majority of oil and development occurs—a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.
The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.
Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The 70,000-plus-acre park—named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape—is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky. But oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.
We need to clean up our air now
With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need to keep better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.
Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.
Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we keep strong federal regulations that help curb the main pollutant of natural gas—methane—from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.
Image: Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens local populations. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
Learn more: Maps: Oil and Gas Pollution from Public Lands