Photo: Oil and gas facility in Counselor, NM with Lybrook Elementary School in the background. Photo by Becca Grady

Op-ed by NM State Representative Debbie Sariñana, District 21 in Bernalillo County.

September 15, 2023

First published in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Journal and Carlsbad Current

Serving in the Air Force and then teaching in Albuquerque’s public schools for 20 years has taught me that most everything is a balancing act between competing interests. As vice chair of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the state House, I get to see this balancing act every day when it comes to the oil and gas industry.

This industry is a classic three-legged stool: It provides enormous revenue to fund public schools and the workings of state government, it provides thousands of good-paying jobs to New Mexicans — but it also exacts a toll on our health and environment.

A recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity estimated more than 34,000 students in New Mexico’s oil country attend school approximately a mile from an oil extraction site. The air quality within this radius is some of the worst in the country, with air monitor readings that regularly exceed federal health standards. It’s toxic, laced with carcinogenic compounds released during the extraction and refining processes including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

What makes it worse is that there are many pathways where schoolchildren are exposed to these toxins — from just breathing to drinking contaminated water, or eating food grown on polluted soil, and even by the chemicals landing on their skin.

The result? Thousands of New Mexican schoolchildren find it difficult focusing on class because they have headaches from possible methane exposure. Some can’t play sports because they suffer from asthma and can’t breathe well enough. Others suffer nightly nosebleeds and have to visit emergency rooms to regulate their breathing.

According to Cabinet Secretary James Kenney of the New Mexico Environment Department, air quality in southeastern New Mexico has “deteriorated” to dangerous levels. And our Environment Department simply cannot fulfill its statutory duty to prevent or abate air pollution in the counties with heavy oil and gas production without more funding to enforce the Air Quality Act.

The oil and gas industry, which is so important to our state, is also enormously profitable, with companies making record profits year after year. These companies, in exchange for the right to drill in our state, ought to cover more of the costs of the environmental and health impacts they create.

We need to rebalance our approach to better protect our children—our future. In the Legislature, we are sworn to protect all citizens. The families and children who live and attend schools near extraction sites depend on us to address these challenges and secure a cleaner and healthier future.

A Carlsbad Municipal Schools bus waits in traffic near flaring oil and gas wells along Laguna Road in Carlsbad in September 2019.Eddie Moore