Kayley Shoup didn’t recognize her hometown when she moved back to Carlsbad in 2018.
Shoup quickly noticed how oil and gas facilities grew throughout the Cavern City and surrounding areas during her time away, she said brought an array of human health and environmental problems as oil and gas boomed in the Permian Basin.
The prolific shale basin that stretches from southeast New Mexico to West Texas saw a dramatic upswing in fossil fuel extraction and development in about 2017 – driven by the increasingly widespread use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
The technological advancements allowed drillers to access deeper and harder-to-reach underground shale rock deposits, breaking up the formations and extracting crude oil and natural gas.
The boom meant a windfall of revenue and jobs to the southeast corner of New Mexico and to the state’s coffers.
But to Shoup, the economic boon came at a troubling cost.
She said she noticed many people she grew up with, including her mother, suffered from rare forms of cancer and other ailments.
Answers to Shoup’s questions were hard to come by, she said, as a regular person with nowhere to turn.
That’s why she joined local grassroots organization Citizen Caring for the Future, a group of Carlsbad-area residents dedicated to talking about the environmental concerns brought on by oil and gas and telling the story of the industry’s impacts beyond economic benefits.
The group joined Earthworks Field Advocate Nathalie Eddy on a tour of oil and gas sites in southern Eddy County Wednesday, using forward-looking infrared cameras to observe potentially air-polluting emissions and create evidence to be used in complaints to state regulators.
Traveling from site to site in the Carlsbad area and throughout the Permian, the group reported that it continued to see and document leaks of methane and volatile organic compounds from oil and gas storage tanks, pipelines and flare stacks.
Many flare stacks, where excess natural gas is burned off, were seen malfunctioning without any combustion, meaning gas was could be released directly into the air the facilities often share with residential neighborhoods.
“At some point, you’ve got to think it has to do with what’s going on around us,” Shoup said of the rash of cancer diagnoses she noticed when returning to her hometown. “It was becoming too many.”
Upon joining the group in late 2020, Shoup said speaking out about oil and gas was often met with resentment from a local community that relies on the industry and saw it quickly baked into its culture.
“With the hostility in this town, I’ve lost a lot of friends calling this stuff out,” Shoup said. “I think the cost is a bit too high when talk about regulations. People say oil and gas leaves if there’s any added rules.”
The group doesn’t wish to shut down oil and gas all at once, Shoup said, but find a way to balance the extraction of fossil fuels and its benefits with the needs of the environment following years, she said, of putting economics ahead of public health.
She pointed to the State of New Mexico’s recently enacted methane waste rules by its Oil Conservation Division, which called for an end to venting and flaring while requiring operators capture 98 percent of produced gas by 2026 through retrofitting and expanding infrastructure.
Oil and gas industry leaders collaborated with the state and other stakeholders to develop the new rules, and many oil and gas majors recently signaled targets to reduce carbon emissions.
“We can do it in a balanced way,” Shoup said. “I think responsible oil and gas production is important. New Mexico needs adequate funding to enact the rules. Oil and gas lead the economy, but it comes at the cost of the southeast and our health. It doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Eddy said she’d traveled to the area multiple times including a trip in November 2019 and another the following March.
The latest trip revealed more of the same, she said, as ambitious environmental policy has yet to translate to action on the ground.
“It just doesn’t stop,” Eddy said. “Every time we come out here, we find something. What’s changing in the state for greater protections for the environment, we’re seeing some really great shifts but we’re not seeing the change in the field yet. We need to put people above polluters.”
Nick King, another member of the local group and preacher at the Carlsbad Menonite Church said conversations about oil and gas is often become political and ignore scientific evidence that the industry is damaging the environment.
The New Mexico Environment Department found the areas around Carlsbad and Hobbs, in neighboring Lea County to the east, both had ground-level ozone areas in excess of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), with Carlsbad reporting 79 parts per billion of ozone (ppb) and Hobbs 71 ppb, compared to the 70 ppb national standard.
That meant New Mexico two main oil and gas areas also had some of the highest levels of ozone, a pollutant formed when sunlight interacts with ozone and known to cause respiratory disease such as asthma and cancer.
“I’m also concerned about the misinformation and not taking science into account,” King said. “It seems this evidence is not considered. It’s just political. Completely shutting down oil and gas is not my object but to do it safely and responsibly. I would like to see more objectivity. Not just a political divide.”
And with the state and federal governments recently signaled increased support for renewable energy such as wind and solar, King – himself owner of King Solar which installs residential panels – said the group is optimistic about a low carbon future for southeast New Mexico.
“I think solar has a good future. It’s almost cheaper than natural gas,” King said. “Oil and gas has its place, but it will be diminishing and I hope it continues to do so for the good of the climate.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.