Don Schreiber enters his barn at the Devils Spring Ranch located in the San Juan Basin. (Photo by Samuel Gilbert for Source NM)
In her 30 years working as a health care professional in the Navajo Nation, Adella Begaye witnessed the health impacts of extractive industries on Indigenous communities in the Southwest.
“We know these toxins can impact the respiratory system, your heart and the lungs. All parts of the body,” she said, speaking to the harms of pollution from the uranium, coal, and oil and gas industries.
Begaye’s a former nurse and retired public health administrator working in the central part of the Navajo Nation.
In New Mexico, the second-largest oil-producing state in the U.S., residents’ proximity to oil and gas facilities has become a growing public health concern.
According to the Oil and Gas Threat Map by the nonprofits FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks, over 144,000 people in New Mexico live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility. That number includes 20% of the state’s Indigenous residents.
This “threat radius” is correlated with adverse health outcomes, including cancer, respiratory illness, fetal defects, blood disorders, and neurological problems stemming from chemicals associated with oil and gas production.
“There are billowing clouds of methane and toxics like benzene from pretty much every oil and gas facility,” said Earthwork’s Information Systems Director Alan Septoff during a presentation of the updated map.
Pollutants from more than 62,000 oil and gas facilities in New Mexico include the carcinogen benzene, hydrogen sulfide (similar in toxicity to carbon monoxide), and “volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog),” according to the EPA.
A spokesperson from the New Mexico Environment Department confirmed oil and gas activities impact the health of people living nearby. “The most widespread reported symptoms include respiratory problems like asthma and coughing, eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, trouble sleeping, and fatigue,” spokesperson Mathew Maez wrote in an email.
According to the American Lung Association, the four major oil- and gas-producing counties in New Mexico received failing grades for high ozone days.
“That means that people are being exposed to asthma-exacerbating air pollution,” said Camilla Feibelman, the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter director.
Begaye said many oil and gas companies are aware of the harms but lack transparency or accountability to the public.
“The problem with all these industries is they do not tell you the health impacts,” said Begaye, president of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (Diné CARE), a nonprofit that works with Navajo communities affected by energy and environmental issues.
People are not informed. I think that is intentional. – Adella Begaye, Diné CARE
People are not informed. I think that is intentional.
– Adella Begaye, Diné CARE
Poor regulation and monitoring
In New Mexico, the release of methane and other pollutants has been enabled in the past by lax regulations and insufficient resources to monitor the industry and fine companies for violations.
“The Permian and San Juan Basins are two of the largest sources of methane in the nation and are huge sources of ozone precursors,” Tannis Fox, staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, wrote in an email response to questions. “New Mexico’s prior rules allowed the emission of these harmful pollutants without consequence.”
According to year-end data from the Oil Conservation Division, producers in New Mexico vented and flared enough natural gas to power nearly 39,0000 homes. That’s around the number of households in Las Cruces, N.M. the state’s second-largest city, according to reporter Jerry Redfern’s January article.
When asked about health hazards for those living near oil and gas facilities, division director Adrienne Sandoval wrote in an email that in 2020, the state’s Environment Department and OCD held “a community impacts meeting to hear from members of the public and their concerns surrounding health impacts.”
In response to questions about the racial disparities in health outcomes related to oil and gas production, Maez wrote in an email that “NMED understands that proximity to oil and gas wells has an impact on communities in New Mexico, and especially the most vulnerable communities living in close proximity to these sources.”
Maez added that NMED oil and gas rules “specifically target emissions from smaller, leak-prone wells and protect those living closest to development with more frequent inspections and leak detection and repair requirements.”
OCD, the division that regulates oil and gas activity in New Mexico, remains understaffed. The agency has 11 inspectors tasked with monitoring more than 60,000 wells. In the 2022 legislative session, OCD requested 25 additional staff members, eight of whom would have been inspectors.
“Unfortunately, we only received an additional 5 FTEs [full-time employees], one of which will be dedicated to inspections,” Sandoval said.
There has been progress. This year, New Mexico adopted ozone precursor rules that, according to the Environmental Department, will remove hundreds of millions of pounds of emissions, including 851 million pounds of methane annually.
“The ozone rule will likely reduce those harmful health effects through the reduction of the oil and gas emissions and is expected to have the greatest impact on fence-line communities closest to oil and gas operations,” NMED spokesperson Maez said.
Life in an oil field
These new rules will impact areas like the San Juan Basin, where 80% of residents live within a quarter-mile of an oil and gas operation.
Don Schreiber is one of them. He and his wife Jane live on a ranch in the San Juan Basin surrounded by 122 natural gas wells.
“I don’t like the term natural gas. It’s only natural when it’s in the ground,” he said while driving his diesel Dodge truck towards the entrance of the 3,000-acre property located in one of the most active areas of natural gas production in the country. “When you take it out, all hell breaks loose.”
Don, a former insurance salesman, and his wife Jane, a retired fourth-grade schoolteacher, bought the property in 1999 after retiring from their jobs in nearby Farmington, where he grew up.
The plan was to improve the rangeland through holistic ranching and explore the expansive acreage on horseback — a passion of Jane’s.
“If it involved horses, Jane was in,” Don said. They met at Jumbo Ciminos’s Bar, “the best dance floor in Farmington,” he said. Jane grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas, in a region transformed from an agricultural area into a center of oil and gas production — much as the San Juan Basin has been.
“Thirty to 50 years of relentless fragmentation here,” Don said, climbing a small hill to a gas well near the couple’s house. The equipment at the well site near the ranch house is painted an earth-toned “Juniper Green,” according to the Bureau of Land Management’s color tool for painting oil gas equipment throughout the state. This particular shade is an attempt by the agency — which leases the subsurface mineral rights to oil and gas companies — to blend the equipment into the landscape. Other color schemes include “Carlsbad Canyon,” “Sudan Brown,” and “Beetle.”
“We can never be on one well location and not see another,” he said, parking the truck at the cleared and leveled well site cut into the hillside.
The odor near the facility is intense. Like “opening a can of paint thinner in an enclosed space,” he said. Leaked and vented hydrocarbons waft past in a toxic breeze.
This particular well — one of many visited by Source New Mexico in late May — was venting methane and toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, Don said. The effect above the storage tank’s valve is a subtle shimmer in the air, like the atmospheric haze caused by heat radiating off asphalt on a summer day.
“If you’re still and look at the piñons behind it, you can see the distortion,” he said.
Natural gas and hydrocarbon vapors flow out of the pressure relief valve, obscuring the view of the trees on the hill beyond.
This kind of pollution, invisible and insidious, has become the primary health concern for the Schreibers and their family. Their 10 grandchildren frequently visit the ranch, exploring the expansive property on foot and horseback.
“When you felt you had surface threats from oil and gas, you could teach kids about that,” he said.
Those threats include waste tanks holding toxic chemicals and oil and other contaminated areas commonly associated with the oil and gas facilities.
“That all changed when we began to understand the threat of the venting and flaring. We had to change our behavior.”
For Don, the turning point came in 2007 when they received nine notices of intent to drill or near their property. The Schreibers do not own the subsurface mineral rights on their property, or deeded lands, enabling companies to drill nearly at will. It was nearing Christmas time, and Jane had purchased and restored a single cinched western child-sized riding saddle to give to their first grandchild.
The gift brought up mixed emotions, Don said. It held the prospect of exploring the land with his first grandchild and the simultaneous dread that his home was being poisoned.
“That saddle had so much hope in it, so much expectation of the future,” said Schreiber, “I thought, where is that kid going to ride? Where will she be able to ride safely?”
The couple gave up ranching that year, and Don dedicated himself to environmental activism.
Fifteen years later, he’s had some notable wins in deterring new oil and gas development. There are also many more losses, and now in his 70s, he speaks with emotion about the industry’s impact on the ranch, his family and the planet.
“Climate change is immediate and real to us,” he said. “It’s underfoot.”
While lamenting the impact of these wells on the ranch, Don makes sure to check his privilege. He motions toward Gobernador Knob, a mountain sacred to the Diné.
This is not our homeland. We could pick up and move. That is not the case for frontline communities, particularly Indigenous communities, that don’t have that option.
– Don Schreiber
Native American residents are disproportionately impacted by the industry in the San Juan Basin. According to census data used in the Threat Map, over 50% of Native Americans live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility.
The oil and gas industry is part of the larger “energy sacrifice zone,” said Robyn Jackson, interim executive director of Diné CARE.
“The San Juan basin is dealing with the historical legacy of resource extraction and pollution,” Jackson said. “When those sites are impacted, it affects future generations. It impacts their connection to the land and our cultural traditions.”
While the threats of living near oil and gas facilities are well-documented, few authoritative health studies have examined the impact on Indigenous communities.
The Counselor Chapter Health Impact Assessment (HIA) Committee conducted a wellness survey in 2018 on the impacts of oil and drilling in three Navajo chapters (Counselor, Torreon and Ojo Encino) near Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in the San Juan Basin.
The results of the Tri-Chapter HIA provide a glimpse of the impact. In the Counselor Chapter, over 80% of participating Diné residents reported health concerns, including respiratory issues, headaches, nosebleeds, and itching and burning eyes and skin associated with living near one of the 400 nearby oil and gas facilities.
It’s long past time to move away from these fossil fuels, Jackson said.
“We would like an economy that is not resource extraction-based,” she said. “Our people and lands are being sacrificed, and we have this reality of the collective human problem of climate change.”
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