For our health, reduce methane emissions

Reader View: For our health, reduce methane emissions by Wendy Johnson, Santa Fe New Mexican, Saturday, June 11, 2016

Not too long ago, I participated in a rally at the Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale in Santa Fe to call on the Obama administration to keep fossil fuels in the ground and enact safeguards on toxic methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. Joined by 200 others from around the state, I was proud to stand up for the health and well-being of my fellow New Mexico citizens.


On that same day, the American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air Report, a comprehensive report card on air quality and its human health impacts across the U.S. Not surprisingly, San Juan County received an “F” rating for ozone (commonly known as smog), which is a major contributing factor to respiratory disease. Ozone pollution is directly associated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that escape along with methane at many points of oil and gas production.

As a health care professional and public health expert in a state still heavily dependent on extractive industry, I wonder why rulemakers at the highest levels wouldn’t enact the strictest safeguards on pollution that damages human health to the extent leaking methane and VOCs do. Methane is vented and leaked from every step of oil and gas operations, from wellhead to distribution lines, alongside toxic co-pollutants that are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and increased risk of birth defects. The San Juan Basin is dotted with more than 20,000 wells drilling for oil and gas, polluting local communities’ air and water, and damaging sacred lands in the greater Chaco Canyon area.

The rally at the BLM oil and gas lease sale both highlighted these local issues and fueled a larger movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground. BLM regional offices are slated about four sales per year to auction off our public lands for oil and gas development. After President Barack Obama issued a moratorium on the federal coal leasing program in January — citing coal’s contribution to climate change — groups around the country united under the banner “Keep It In The Ground” are urging him to do the same for the oil and gas program. Alongside rally speakers living with industry in their backyards, I called on the administration to embrace this movement and act immediately to protect our communities from the dangerous impacts of oil and gas drilling.

Another way the administration can immediately reduce the dangerous impacts of oil and gas is to enact federal standards on methane pollution. New EPA rules would reduce methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas equipment. By committing to taking strong action on climate, Obama has the opportunity to significantly improve the quality of life of millions of Americans living next door to oil and gas. I have seen too many cases of cancer, chronic lung disease and other illnesses that are exacerbated or caused by exposure to petrochemicals and methane to stand by while industry willingly puts people at increased risk.

My prescription for healthy communities to “Keep It In the Ground” is backed up by medical reports on failing air quality in oil and gas communities. We should respond to the calls of the fast-growing grass-roots movement to stop burning dirty fuels and doing all we can to protect all citizens from this unnecessary harm.

-Dr. Wendy Johnson is a family physician practicing in Santa Fe and previously served as the medical director of the Cleveland, Ohio, Department of Public Health.

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