New Mexico, a state with a relatively sparse population clustered across vast expanses, has a surprising number of smokestacks spewing noxious pollutants.
An estimated 189 “stationary” pollution sources — including fossil fuel operations, mines, power plants and landfills — foul the air, emit 25% of the state’s greenhouse gases and collectively pose a public health threat, especially to lower-income neighborhoods nearby.
While the state has set ambitious goals and has made strides to reduce emissions, its current policies don’t require all large air polluters to cut their greenhouse gases. Many of these facilities also release huge amounts of pollutants that are harmful to breathe in, according to a recent report compiled by PSE Healthy Energy and the University of New Mexico.
The toxins disproportionately affect poorer communities of color, whose members gravitate to lower-cost housing in neighborhoods near smokestacks, job opportunities with the polluting industry and a sense of belonging with other minorities, the report says.
Twenty-seven of the big pollution sources in the state are in places where 10,000 people live within three miles, according to the report. About 63% of the populations in those areas are lower-income families and 44% are people of color.
“Lower-income neighborhoods or neighborhoods with higher numbers of Native, Latino or Black residents are frequently exposed to higher levels of air pollution and experience higher rates of health impacts,” the report says.
It argues federal and state laws don’t adequately protect these communities from health-damaging pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
Oil fields and fossil fuel-burning plants emit nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which combine to form ground-level ozone. Such substances can impair the lungs, heart and neurological systems. Benzene, an especially toxic VOC, is a carcinogen that can cause leukemia and acute lymphoma.
“There’s a history of environmental injustice,” said Miguel Acosta, co-director of the Santa Fe-based community advocacy group Earth Care. The new report confirms what many community activists have long observed, he added.
Acosta’s nonprofit has opposed plans by an asphalt firm to consolidate two plants at a site just outside the city of Santa Fe’s southwest-side limits, which Acosta and other critics say would lead to environmental contamination and air quality degradation in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.
The UNM/PSE report says people who live near sources of toxic emissions or downwind are at the greatest risk, but no one is truly free of the hazards because air pollution can drift across the entire state and beyond.
The study notes in 2019 the governor issued an executive order to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and the state Legislature passed the Energy Transition Act, requiring utilities to decarbonize by 2045.
The state also has passed rules aimed at curbing oil-field pollution.
But the state lacks a law that caps total greenhouse emissions in a given year, and nothing on the books specifically addresses how the health effects on disadvantaged communities can be decreased, the report says.
“It’s a patchwork, so there’s pieces of regulation,” said Elena Krieger, PSE’s research director and one of the report’s authors, “but not a comprehensive set of greenhouse gas policies to make sure that emissions are reduced across the board.”
The report offers a list of recommendations: focusing more enforcement efforts on pollution clusters and areas where front-line communities could suffer ill health effects; giving affected residents a seat at the table; and creating a cap for all sizable pollution sources.
“If you want to reduce exposures, reducing emissions is a really good start,” Krieger said.
Progress made, more needed
Of the polluters the study examined, 128 emitted at least 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2019 and 86 logged emissions over 25,000 metric tons.
One of the most potent greenhouse gases is methane, a common oil-field pollutant.
Methane has more than 80 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide in a 20-year period, according to climate scientists, who say cutting it is vital to keep the Earth from warming by no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, since the industrial era began.
If the world exceeds that threshold, climate-related disasters will escalate, they say.
Larger facilities in New Mexico spew most of the health-damaging pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. The nitrogen oxide they release is equal to half of the transportation sector’s, according to the report.
“Currently, there’s just a totally inadequate set of policies to reduce emissions from these large sources, not to mention the thousands and thousands of wells and pipelines for upstream oil and gas production,” said Noah Long, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who was a consultant on the study.
Data in the report shows the largest stationary air polluter is the fossil fuel industry, which should come as no surprise; New Mexico is the second-largest oil producer in the country.
Long acknowledged the state has enacted measures to help curb oil and gas emissions, but contends more needs to be done to address “the huge climate pollution crisis that we face.”
“While it’s fair to say the state has made some progress, it’s not even close to … what we need to do to get to the governor’s 2030 goal,” he said.
Cutting greenhouse gases systematically can also reduce pollutants that affect lower-income communities of color, Long said.
State Environment Department spokesman Matt Maez noted laws and regulations the state has adopted to reduce harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases.
A prime example is the ozone precursor rule, Maez wrote in an email. Oil operators must avoid releasing ozone-forming nitrogen oxide and VOCs, which also reduces methane emissions tied to the gases.
Another example is the state Oil Conservation Division’s approval of a waste-prevention rule that bars venting and flaring surplus natural gas except in emergencies, Maez wrote. The rule also requires operators to capture 98% of methane by 2026.
As for impacted communities, Maez added, the report acknowledges the actions New Mexico has already taken to ensure some members have a seat at the table. Being able to go further in aiding these communities with oversight and enforcement will depend on funding — a topic being discussed in the current legislative session, he wrote.
The report identifies another bright spot: The coal-fired Escalante Generating Station near Prewitt and San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, along with the Eunice Gas Plant, have closed since 2019, significantly lowering greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants. The Four Corners Generating Station, another coal plant, will be retired in 2031.
Still, pollution clusters — sources such as oil wells located close together — can be found in the San Juan and Permian basins, as well as Bernalillo, Sandoval, Las Cruces and Doña Ana counties, many of them impacting poorer communities.
A large pollution source can have a compounding effect, Krieger said. Residents can be exposed to air contaminants from multiple sources, such as an oil field, landfill and nearby freeway, along with a gas stove and mold in a poorly ventilated home.
On top of that, they could lack health care that would enable a doctor to detect and treat environmental illnesses, Krieger said.
Acosta, the local community advocate, agreed.
“The cumulative impacts are an issue,” he said.
‘Communities are held hostage’
Everyone involved said the state’s air pollution and its impacts are complex problems with no clear-cut solutions.
“It’s complicated because on the one hand, communities are being poisoned,” Acosta said. “On the other hand … those communities are held hostage by the jobs.”
The residents shouldn’t be cast as passive victims, he said, because many organize to resist, whether it’s oil and gas expansion in the San Juan Basin or construction of an asphalt plant just outside Santa Fe.
Government officials must consider a community’s preexisting health conditions, such as people suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems, and look at other irritants they are exposed to before approving another pollution source, Acosta said. Right now, regulators will only consider pollution the facility will emit, he added.
Krieger said California, New Jersey and Michigan are among the states that require environmental justice to be considered when planning for projects that will emit substantial pollution.
Because these rules are new, the states haven’t had a chance to assess how well they’ll work.
Long said New Mexico could follow California’s model and create a statewide emissions cap that would lower each year by, say, 5%. Entities would receive an allowance to emit so much pollution a year, and the permitted amount would decrease over time.
Krierger agreed a blanket cap is good for curbing overall pollution and much needed in New Mexico.
Trying to curtail emission rates in oil operations alone won’t work in an industry whose production has doubled in recent years and continues to rise, she said.
There also must be site-specific limits, so a polluter doesn’t simply shut down a facility in another area — perhaps one that’s easier to scrap — and keep spewing heavy toxins into a neighborhood, Krieger said.
The state also must improve its data collection on pollution sources, she said.
Although Maez said New Mexico has some of the most robust standards for inventorying emissions in the Southwest, Krieger said her research team found energy companies with entire years missing in their reporting.
These data gaps make it harder not only to research emissions, but to regulate them, she said.
Recent digital mapping shows the importance of data when gauging environmental impacts on communities.
In San Juan County, a digital map shows 27,115 Native Americans and 22,355 Hispanics live within half a mile of an oil operation, significantly increasing their risk of serious illnesses.
An Indigenous advocate said new fossil fuel permits should require setbacks of at least a mile from neighborhoods, schools and businesses.
In the meantime, evolving technology is the most promising way to decrease and filter out the harmful pollution drifting into front-line communities, said Terry Sloan, director of Albuquerque-based Southwest Native Cultures.
Indigenous people consider the consequences that actions will have on the next seven generations, Sloan said. As an accountant, he understands companies’ desire for short-term profits, but he thinks they would be well-served to look at how emitting pollution will affect people, including their grandchildren.
“What do we want for our future generations to have to deal with?” Sloan said.