By David Baake
Every year, El Paso residents are exposed to dangerous levels of ozone, a corrosive air pollutant that attacks the lungs and other parts of the body, contributing to respiratory problems, cardiovascular issues, and premature deaths. The American Lung Association ranks El Paso-Las Cruces at number 12 on a list of the most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas in the United States, worse than New York, Chicago, and Dallas–Fort Worth.
After years of advocacy from local activists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has started to take action to reduce pollution in our region. Last year, the agency designated El Paso County as a “nonattainment” area for ozone. This designation initiates a process for reducing emissions from facilities in El Paso County that contribute to the air pollution problem.
While this designation is a major win for public health in El Paso, it only affects sources of pollution in El Paso itself. In recent years, however, El Paso’s pollution levels have been increasingly affected by pollution transported from the Permian Basin in west Texas and southeast New Mexico.
This Permian has seen an explosive growth in oil-and-gas activity in recent years, which, in turn, has led to skyrocketing emissions of ozone-forming chemicals. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Midland-Odessa region now emits about 360,000 tons of ozone-forming volatile organic compound pollution per year—more than the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metropolitan areas, combined.
Much of this pollution comes from oil-and-gas operations engaged in wasteful practices like venting and flaring. Other sources include equipment malfunctions, leaks, and continued use of obsolete devices that are designed to emit as part of their normal operations.
As a result of this pollution, air quality monitors in Carlsbad, New Mexico and Carlsbad Caverns National Park have reported repeated violations of the federal public-health based ozone standard in recent years.
A large body of evidence, including meteorological studies and emissions modeling, shows that this pollution is also reaching El Paso. The studies indicate that the Permian area is responsible for 20% or more of the excess ozone in El Paso’s air.
Fortunately, the EPA is considering action to reduce pollution in the Permian. Just as the agency designated El Paso as a nonattainment area based on the excessive pollution in our air, it may soon redesignate the Permian Basin to reflect the region’s noncompliance with federal air quality standards. Such an action would require new and modified industrial facilities in the Permian to employ state-of-the-art pollution control technology. The states of Texas and New Mexico would also have to develop plans to further reduce pollution in the region.
If implemented, EPA’s proposal will help save lives in West Texas and southern New Mexico. According to analysis by researchers at New York University and the American Thoracic Society, elevated ozone levels in the New Mexico portion of the Permian Basin cause about five premature deaths a year.
The El Paso area — which lies downwind of the Permian — sees an even greater impact, with about 22 premature deaths a year due to excess ozone pollution, along with dozens of emergency room visits and tens of thousands of missed work and school days. Reducing the amount of pollution in the air is a necessary step to reducing this unacceptable impact on our community.
Predictably, industry groups and their political allies have argued that designating the Permian Basin as a nonattainment area would have disastrous impacts for the economy by “severely limiting” oil-and-gas production. That is pure fiction.
The EPA has been regulating ozone under the Clean Air Act for more than 40 years, and has designated dozens of counties — including major oil-and-gas producing regions — as nonattainment for ozone.
These regulations have slashed pollution but have not limited economic growth. For example, the entire state of Pennsylvania is included in the Ozone Transport Region, which means that nonattainment regulations have long applied across the Commonwealth.
Despite this fact, Pennsylvania recorded the strongest year-over-year growth of any of the top-five gas producing states in 2021.
There is simply no evidence to suggest that EPA’s proposed action will negatively impact oil-and-gas production in the Permian. Doing nothing, however, will certainly harm the individuals who live in West Texas and southern New Mexico, who are already exposed to dangerous levels of ozone pollution.
The EPA should stay true to its core mission under the Clean Air Act and designate the Permian Basin as a nonattainment area for the ozone standard.
David Baake is a Las Cruces-based attorney who works with environmental and community groups in El Paso and southern New Mexico to advocate for stronger protections against air pollution.
In 2018, David successfully challenged the Trump Administration’s determination that El Paso was complying with the federal ozone pollution standard, resulting in EPA’s November 2021 decision to designate El Paso as a nonattainment area for this pollutant. In 2021, he represented environmental and community groups in a challenge to El Paso Electric’s application for an air permit for a new unit at the Newman Generating Station, helping negotiate a settlement that required the utility to reduce emissions from its new unit by 40%.