Air quality is a significant and growing concern in New Mexico. Experts link exposure to air pollutants to many adverse health effects, including exacerbation of asthma symptoms, diminished lung function, birth deformities, cardiovascular disease and childhood cancer. Getting a handle on the extent of the problem is difficult. According to the American Lung Association, in its annual State of the Air report, only 9 of New Mexico’s 33 counties have air quality monitoring programs in place; six of those received an “F” grade.
As many New Mexico families understand all too well, one of the most common health conditions caused or exacerbated by air pollution is asthma. The problem is even worse in the regions of the state where oil and gas production and coal-fired power plants are concentrated, or in communities located next to industrial facilities.
Children are affected by air pollution more than adults because their bodies are still developing and they breathe faster. Childhood asthma has become an epidemic in our state. Of asthma-sufferers in the oil patch of southeastern New Mexico, approximately three out of five children are hospitalized annually for their condition. This compares to less than one out of five in the rest of the state.
Poor air quality harms more than our health, it also hurts our finances. The health care costs of air pollution vary depending on the geographic area and study methodology (no known New Mexico-specific studies are available), but all of the numbers are staggering. Across the U.S., more people die from air pollution-related illnesses each year than traffic accidents, and the mortality rate due to air pollution equals that of breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. And as we have so tragically learned, people living in areas of the state with poor air quality and suffering from respiratory illnesses had much higher rates of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.
Improving the quality of our air can save money and create jobs. An analysis of New Mexico’s proposed methane rules found substantial health and health cost benefits. An analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rule to reduce toxic emissions from the utility sector concluded that nation-wide there would be:
- Net annual benefits of between $52.5 and $139.5 billion
- Net job increases of 115,520
- Health care savings of $4.513 billion
- American Lung Association annual “State of the Air” report (2021). https://www.lung.org/research/sota/city-rankings/states/new-mexico
- New Mexico Department of Health (October 2020). “Asthma Prevalence In New Mexico: A Common Condition On The Rise” Clearing the Air quarterly newsletter. https://www.nmhealth.org/publication/view/report/6581/
- Why EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Rule is Good for the Economy and America’s Workforce, Charles J. Cicchetti, Ph.D.
- New Mexico Political Report, Kendra Chamberlain (April 15, 2020) “For Greater Chaco communities air pollution compounds Covid-19 threat”
- “Cost-Effectiveness of Comprehensive Oil and Gas Emissions Reduction Rules in New Mexico”, Synapse (2019)
The Franklin Mountains extend from El Paso into New Mexico. They were formed by pressure on the crust from the formation of the Rio Grande Rift and offer sweeping views of the region. Photo: Nate Gillette / No Barriers
Know the Score > Take Action
Strategies for Air Quality
Actions to improve air quality:
In 2019, the Lujan Grisham Administration launched a process to address one of the most problematic air pollutants from the oil and gas industry: methane. Methane is frequently released into the atmosphere when gas is vented or flared during the production process or leaks from well heads, pipes and tanks. Methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change and also contributes to health problems, along with ozone and other volatile organic compounds released from oil and gas operations..
Following over two years of deep engagement in the rulemaking process, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department adopted a rule in 2021 that requires that 98% of methane gas is captured instead of vented or flared into the atmosphere by 2026. The New Mexico Environment Department completed a hearing on a complimentary rulemaking process to address ozone precursors also polluted into the air, like nitrogen oxides. These toxins, emitted alongside methane by the oil and gas industry, can cause smog, worsen climate change, and cause respiratory illness. If the NMED rule is as strong as we have advocated for, New Mexico could have nation-leading methane rules.
Failures to improve air quality:
No thank you!
The South Valley in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County is made up of a number of what are now called neighborhoods but which were once independent villages. On the east side of the Rio Grande, the area from south of the City to the bridge over I-25 was designated for industrial and manufacturing uses despite the scattered residential areas. Over the years, air quality has suffered, along with the health of the residents.
For years, community advocates have tried to get the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Board (AQB) to limit the number of air quality permits they issue based on the principle of cumulative impact; the Board has failed to act. Community advocates have also asked for more stringent conditions on permits, but the AQB has repeatedly said that they cannot impose air quality standards that are stricter than those at the federal level. As a result, residents sued under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to force federal regulators to acknowledge that the South Valley is an environmental justice community that experiences disproportionate air quality burdens. As a result, regulators were forced to establish arbitration between the residents and the City, but to no avail.
Now, with passage of the “Local Government Air Quality Regulations” (SB 8) in the 2021 legislative session, it may be possible to compel another look at cumulative impact and stringent standards on future permits.
Communicate with the Governor and your Legislators
Whether you’re congratulating them on their score or expressing your disappointment, be direct, courteous and polite.
The most important part is letting them know that you are paying close attention to how they vote or, in the case of the Governor, what actions she takes on legislation that affects our air, land, and water.
Calling your legislator directly and sending letters through regular mail remain by far the most effective ways to communicate with your legislators.
The Governor and Lieutenant Governor can always be contacted at the State Capitol. Except during the legislative session, state legislators should be contacted in their home districts, as listed on the current Legislators page.