Carlsbad, New Mexico, is famous for its national park with underground caverns big enough to hold a small city. Aboveground, Carlsbad is little more than a big town, with a population around 32,000.
However, this community often suffers from smoggy air with pollution levels rivaling those seen in large metropolises such Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. That’s because Carlsbad lies on the edge of the Permian Basin, the world’s top oil-producing region, spread across four counties in New Mexico and 37 counties in West Texas.
A new analysis by Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) shows that when air quality monitors in Carlsbad show spikes in pollution, it’s often because the wind is blowing in from Texas. The monitors record levels of ozone, a key component of smog that’s linked to chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Texas does not have any official monitors on its side of the Permian, despite having a much larger population in harm’s way.
In a Feb. 14 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, EIP and an allied environmental group called WildEarth Guardians urged the agency to officially declare the air in the Permian Basin as too polluted to meet the federal health standard for ozone. When EPA makes such a declaration, it requires the agency and states to impose tighter air pollution limits when industries build large new facilities or consider changes when major polluting projects like highways are approved.
The agency has not been clear on whether it plans to designate the region as exceeding health standards for ozone, despite evidence of ties between oil and gas pollution and ozone spikes.
“Given the persistence of unhealthy air pollution we urge the EPA to move as expeditiously as possible and … afford people the air quality protection they deserve,” the letter states.
The EPA had initially seemed poised to do so, but the effort remains stalled. Last month, the EPA reclassified from “active” to “pending” a proposal to designate the Permian Basin in violation of ozone standards. Many interpreted the move as the agency backing away from the ozone exceedance declaration, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott among those celebrating.
"While it is encouraging news that the Biden Administration has backed down on this disastrous plan, Texas remains ready to fight any job-killing attacks on our critical oil and gas industry,” Abbott said in a statement.
But in an interview with an Albuquerque public radio station earlier this month, New Mexico’s top environmental official said the EPA’s decision is still coming.
“That should not be misread that it’s not happening,” Environment Secretary James Kenney told KUNM 89.9. “Monitoring data that we’re getting in Carlsbad indicates it will happen, and EPA has said to me it will happen. They just need more time to get to that point. So, it’s coming.”
The EIP analysis is only the latest to show the Texas origins of Carlsbad’s polluted air. According to the analysis, wind was 1.9 times more likely to be coming from the Texas part of the Permian Basin during high-ozone days in Carlsbad, compared to low-ozone days.
The finding is consistent with data showing that counties just west and southwest of the New Mexico border are hotspots for venting and flaring of gas. Venting and flaring are common at oil wells in the Permian. Texas regulations allow the release or burning of gas when pipelines are not available nearby to transport the natural gas, which is generally less valuable than the oil being produced from the same wells.
From 2008 to 2019, as oil and gas production in the Permian boomed because of a breakthrough in drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, so did venting and flaring. The amount of gas vented and flared rose 33-fold, or 166 billion cubic feet per year, during that period, according to data reported to the Texas Railroad Commission.
Air pollution sources in the Permian also includes massive gas processing plants, compressor stations, chemical facilities, and plastics plants, along with dozens of new proposed facilities. One example is the Preakness Gas Plant that energy company MarkWest built in Culberson County, Texas, just south of the New Mexico state line. The plant began operating in 2021 and emits large volumes of ozone-forming pollutants, including 80 tons per year of nitrogen oxides and 100 tons per year of volatile organic compounds, according to the Oil and Gas Watch database.
Many other massive new projects are planned for the area. They include the Bear Gas Processing Plant in Reeves County, west of Midland, Texas. The proposed plant would emit 24 tons per year of hazardous air pollutants, along with more than 270 tons per year of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, and more than 480 tons per year of harmful sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.
Another example is Nacero’s Penwell Facility in Ector County. This proposed natural-gas-to-gasoline plant is authorized to emit 95 tons per year of hazardous air pollutants, more than 1,100 tons of ozone-forming pollutants, and more than 1,600 tons of carbon monoxide, according to the Oil and Gas Watch database.
The letter to the EPA argues that pollution travels across the state line on prevailing winds. Using a model developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, EIP traced the origins of polluted air that reached the Carlsbad monitor on high ozone days during 2017–2021. On most of these days (76 percent), the air passed over the Texas Permian Basin before reaching Carlsbad.
The letter also points to the lack of air quality monitors on the Texas side, despite the much larger population than in the New Mexico Permian. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not installed a single ozone monitor in the West Texas metroplex of Midland-Odessa, which has a population of more than 330,000. Lubbock, home to Texas Tech University and with a population of 260,000, also has no ozone monitors.
This lack of monitors has allowed industry supporters to avoid acknowledging that air pollution in the Permian Basin is a public health risk. A June 2022 Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that the ozone issue was simply a “regulatory back door” for the EPA to ban fracking, something the agency has never proposed.
Previous studies have also implicated the oil and gas industry in worsening air quality in New Mexico. A modeling study by the New Mexico Environmental Department predicted that in 2028, oil and gas emissions would dominate those recorded at the Carlsbad site, with equal contribution from Texas and New Mexico. A previous EPA study forecast the effects of ozone from oil and gas production in 2025 would be severe in West Texas.
Jeremy Nichols, director of climate and energy for environmental group WildEarth Guardians, said the EPA’s decision “is absolutely critical for reining in ozone and protecting the health of people in the region.” In March 2021, WildEarth Guardians had petitioned for the EPA to tighten down on ozone regulations in the Permian, citing high ozone levels at the Carlsbad monitor.
“The truth is, unchecked oil and gas extraction throughout southeast New Mexico and West Texas is hammering clean air in the Permian Basin,” Nichols said.
Lead photo: A photo published on the City of Carlsbad's website shows the city's recreation center next to the Pecos River.