This article originally appeared in Nexus Media News and was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.
From behind her FLIR GF320 infrared camera, Kendra Pinto sees plumes of purple smoke otherwise invisible to the naked eye. They’re full of methane and volatile organic compounds, and they’re wafting out of an oil tank in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.
Pinto, a member of the Diné (Navajo) community and field advocate with environmental group Earthworks, relies on this device in her fight to keep her community’s air clean. She lives in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation, home to booming oil and gas production.
“When I walk outside, I can’t just think about fresh air. I’m thinking about the VOCs. I’m thinking about the methane that I’m breathing in, because I know what’s out there,” Pinto said. “I see it all the time.”
She’s one of countless citizen scientists across the country who are tracking and reporting environmental harms committed by the oil and gas industry to regulators. And here, there are many: The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that each year, New Mexico’s oil and gas companies emit more than 1.1 million metric tons of methane, a greenhouse gas around 86 times more potent in its warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Much of this comes from wasted natural gas—$271 million of it in this state alone, according to the EDF. It leaks out of faulty equipment and is intentionally expelled through the processes of venting and flaring, in which excess, unrefined natural gas is released or burned from oil wells and refineries to eliminate waste or reduce pressure buildups.
This is bad for the planet—high volumes of methane released into the atmosphere accelerate the pace of the climate crisis. It’s also bad for the people who live around it who are exposed to the pollutants that typically come along with methane emissions, like benzene, a carcinogen, and PM2.5 and PM10—particulate matter small enough to get lodged deep in the lungs. Pinto said her neighbors experience disproportionately high rates of headaches, nosebleeds, allergies, and respiratory issues, like sinus and throat discomfort.
“I think the scariest thing about methane is it’s odorless,” Pinto said. “It’s a silent killer. And if my neighbors are breathing it in, that’s worrisome.”
These emissions and the fossil fuel development that causes them have long been “insufficiently regulated,” said Jon Goldstein, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs at EDF. In 2020, then-president Donald Trump rolled back Obama-era regulations on methane that effectively eliminated the requirement that oil and gas companies monitor and repair methane leaks in their infrastructure.
The Senate voted to reinstate them in April 2021, and last November, the Biden administration announced it would introduce even more comprehensive regulations in an interagency effort to crack down on emissions from the oil and gas sector. As part of the plan, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its own rules, which include a requirement that states reduce methane emissions from thousands of sources nationwide, and a provision that encourages the use of new technology designed to find major leaks. A final methane rule is expected to be implemented later this year.
The Navajo Nation, too, is taking things into its own hands: The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering adopting a permitting program to regulate methane from oil and gas development on its land.
Here, methane emissions from oil and gas companies are 65% higher than the national average, seeping out of pipelines, oil rigs, and the like. The San Juan Basin, some 150 miles northwest of Santa Fe, has received a failing grade from the American Lung Association for ozone pollution, or smog, the result of the combination between VOCs and radiation from sunlight.
“The San Juan Basin isn’t home to large cities,” he said. In San Juan County, ozone is the result of the widespread build-out of oil and gas wells; approximately half of the county’s 50,000 residents who identify as Indigenous live within half a mile of those wells, according to EDF.
Catching emissions at the source will be crucial to changing this legacy. And where regulators can’t (or won’t) step in, residents like Pinto are. The federal government is now relying upon community monitoring, or work that citizens do to contribute to public understanding of the scope of air pollution near fossil fuel sites, a development that Eric Kills A Hundred, tribal energy program manager at EDF, believes will be “huge.”
The EPA’s methane proposal includes a plan to implement a program to “empower the public to detect and report large emission events for appropriate follow-up by owners and operators,” according to an agency news release.
During the comment period for the EPA’s proposed community monitoring program, members of the petroleum industry questioned whether the agency has the authority to establish it at all, primarily objecting to the idea that air quality monitoring be conducted by entities other than agencies and producers themselves, E&E News reported in May.
But Pinto said groups like Earthworks have a track record of doing this work long before federal regulators began tapping them for their data collection.
“Documenting these types of emissions is important because no one else is really doing it,” she said. “Even the agencies that are regulating this type of thing. Because we’re in a rural area, what can they actually capture when they come out here? Are they going to more than 100 sites?”
Kills A Hundred said these efforts are not only about what the Navajo Nation can contribute to government data on methane pollution, they’re also about empowering the community to play a role in stopping it.
“Having been the stewards of the land for so long,” he said, “it’s just so important for these communities to be active and raise their voice.”
Audrey Carleton is a video editor and producer for Nexus Media News, where she covers environmental justice and climate change. Her work has appeared in outlets like The Atlantic, WIRED, Newsy, KQED, and Twin Cities PBS.
Briana Flin is a video editor and producer for Nexus Media News, where she covers environmental justice and climate change. Her work has appeared in outlets like The Atlantic, WIRED, Newsy, KQED, and Twin Cities PBS. Prior to joining the Nexus Media team, she was at WIRED, producing videos on everything from kinetic sculptures to praying mantises sporting 3D glasses. She’s a proud alumnus of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a Californian born-and-raised. After work, you can find her attempting to train her rambunctious rescue dog, baking treats, or rewatching Mad Men for the umpteenth time.