The Elephant in the Four Corners. Chapter 3: The not-so-clean fresh air in New Mexico.


new mexico

Population:  2.084 million (2017)

Top 6 Industries Driving Economic Growth:

(1) Federal Government Spending, [Revenue spending in the state is 2:1, the highest rate of return in the country. The federal government provides many of state’s largest employers.] (2) Oil and Gas, [New Mexico is the third-largest net exporter of energy in the U.S.] (3&4) Tourism and Retail, [Growth rate is nearly 20% above the national average] (5) Film, [Motion picture companies spend nearly $400 million in New Mexico annually. The research and tech corridors have enabled the state to expand into animation and graphics.] (6) Customer Service [National customer service centers operating in New Mexico include: Hewlett-Packard, Fidelity Investments, Lowe’s and Gap].

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The infamous vistas of the New Mexican landscape inspired the resurgence of Georgia O’Keefe; the dusty shapes changing her perspective on form and generating an entirely new style of expression in the artist’s work. I first saw O’Keefe’s art in person as an undergrad. As a teenager, I had fallen for her detailed interpretations of color, form, and movement; her ability to take ownership of a former symbol of female submission and transform it into an unapologetic display of feminine audacity.

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The gallery show was the first time I had been exposed to O’Keeffe’s later work. O’Keeffe had begun traveling to New Mexico later in life and moved to the state after her partner passed away. The pieces from this time period appeared, at first, to be fundamentally opposed to the sensual curves and colors I had expected to find on display. Instead, these works were minimalist and modern, with broad strokes and earthen tones.  Nonetheless, I had found something familiar in her movements. O’Keeffe’s work was about playing with abstraction; exploring the unexamined spaces.  She found beauty in both the complex and the simple; in the delicate and the intrusive. O’Keeffe’s work exposed the disregarded nuances of aesthetic elegance, not because something was naturally fascinating – but because it was not.

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Our drive through New Mexico was both humbling and empowering. I understood at once O’Keeffe’s decision to leave her New York apartment for these expansive skies.


I found myself absorbed in musings of another life; one in which I became a painter. I thought about how I could have sat in one spot for weeks on end, consumed in the depth of world just in front of my face; losing myself in the texture of the earth and vegetation flying by my car window.


I remembered O’Keeffe’s decision to do precisely the opposite during her time here. That decision began to seem almost brave. She chose to overlook the immensity of detail in the landscape, to trust that there was beauty in the form itself, and to expose the foundation role which the form played in capturing our attention.


I was struck by the human ecosystems here. The communities dotting the side of the highway were predominantly small trailers or makeshift homes. These communities often seemed isolated, usually in groups of no more than a dozen dwellings.


It is tempting to be struck by this secluded, simple life as romantic.

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Unfortunately, rural communities in New Mexico are on the front lines of environmental justice issues. In the North of the state, uranium mining threatens water sources.  The private water systems in these communities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and likely receive no monitoring at all. Contamination is, instead, determined by the resulting impact on community health.


Protests against the mining operations here have become common.  The community of Crown Point was organizing one such campaign as we drove through. Crown Point is fighting the return to operation of a uranium mine directly across the road from their community.


I could spend the entirety of this post discussing the impact of uranium mining on communities here. I could say the same for chemical production facilities or industrial dairies.


I could continue on with the topic from my Texas post, and discuss the depletion of groundwater aquifers, which is occurring at alarming rates in Eastern parts of New Mexico.

It was quite interesting to watch the vegetation change with the landforms, as water from the mountain regions began to leave its mark. Perhaps O’Keeffe was onto something there, after all.

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Yet, there is one particular challenge facing New Mexico that seems as remarkable as it is disregarded and as delicate as it is intrusive.


In 2015, a NASA photograph of the U.S. Four Corners region revealed a cloud of methane, roughly the size of Delaware, over the Northwest corner of New Mexico.

Image Credit: 
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan

Researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM), led by Eric Kort, determined the cloud had been primarily caused by the natural gas operations in the San Juan Basin.


The massive leaks were attributable to an unconventional technique long-practiced in the region, known as coal bed methane extraction. 


Kort’s findings showed that the San Juan Basin may be producing methane emissions roughly equivalent to the entire oil, gas, and coal industry of the United Kingdom.


Methane is a green house gas that is roughly 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide and can cause a host of immediate human health impacts. Natural gas is 95-98% methane.

The UNM research demonstrates that U.S. operations are leaking much more of this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than operators have been reporting to the EPA. They were not the first (or the second) research team to present these findings.

The following is a short clip presenting the findings of NOAA scientist Gaby Petron. 


The San Juan Basin is home to one of the largest proven natural gas reserves in the United States. It is second only to Colorado in proved coal-bed methane reserves. New Mexico, as a whole, accounts for 10% of natural gas produced in the U.S.


But the state only consumes about 1/5 of its own production. The majority of gas produced here is transmitted through the Blanco Hub, a major pipeline connection point which trades and transports gas up the West Coast and the Rocky Mountains.


The bulk of pollution attributable to natural gas occurs at the source. This means that those residing in San Juan experience the air and water contamination from 20,000 wells, regardless of how little of that energy they themselves consume.


Also interesting, the leading operator profiting from the operations in the San Juan Basin is PNM Resources, a Michigan-based company that is not all that popular with the locals.

Air contamination from these wells extends beyond the daily inconveniences of foul odors, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats.


The pollutants hanging in the air above the basin have been shown to cause increased rates of infant mortality, birth deformities, chronic respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, stroke, childhood cancer and diminished lung function.

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Childhood asthma rates are five times higher near the New Mexico’s oil and gas hubs than the state average.  The majority of families living in these hubs, particularly in the San Juan Basin, are disproportionately low-income, Native American, and Latino/a.

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The American Lung Association reported that 1 in 4 New Mexicans was at risk of an air-pollution-related illness in 2015. That is equivalent to approximately 500,000 people.

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Communities and regulators blamed coal for the poor air quality, in step with a national turn towards natural gas. NASA’s findings mobilized families here to push for stronger rules on natural gas producers.

A public meeting in San Juan, attended by more than 700 residents, recorded votes of  2:1 for stronger regulation.


These efforts eventually lead to the passage of the Obama administration’s methane legislation. The bill was narrowly saved from retraction in May (2017) by a 51-49 Senate vote, due in part to lobbying by lawmakers in the Four Corners region. Two weeks after the vote, the EPA put a 90-day stay on the legislation for review.

poor housing

This legislation is one of the only federal regulations to monitors natural gas operations. The industry has been dealt a multitude of exemptions from national policies it would ordinarily be subject to. For example, hydrofracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates underground injection wells.

A suburb just outside of Albuquerque.

Operations are responsible for reporting their own emissions for compliance with the Clean Air Act and, as mentioned, recent academic studies, suggest that the industry has been dramatically under-reporting.


Of the 49,746 active oil and gas wells in New Mexico, only 26,949 (about 54%) are federally monitored.

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Considering how harmful methane is to public and environmental health, in both the short and long term, and reflecting on the numerous federal actions establishing a breathtakingly lenient regulatory regime for the industry, one can’t help but be impressed by the success of the rhetorical campaign for “clean” fossil fuels.


It also demonstrates the responsibility which all those who are consuming US natural gas have to those communities disproportionately impacted by the fuel that powers about 65% of electricity nationwide. Depending on market mechanisms to regulate an industry requires the consumer be informed and concerned with the power of their own choices.  

Natural gas operations not only leak methane but also a host of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), not to mention CO2. The San Juan Basin ranks number 8 in the top ten Western Coal-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Power Plants for CO2 Emissions; the Four Corners area is number 4.

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The power plants here are two of the most polluting plants in the country.  The San Juan Generating Station (SJGS), in operation since the 1970’s, is one of the country’s largest single sources of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

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In 2011, the U.S. EPA ordered the owner of SJGS, PNM Resources, to install pollution controls on the facility’s smokestacks, following years of ignoring these legal obligations. PNM filed a lawsuit against the EPA.

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The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the suit the following year and, a year after that, SJGS was brought into compliance almost forty years after the passage of the CAA amendments it was violating.

The Department of the Interior has just extended the permit for PNM for another 25 years. 

“You head down, even on a relatively dark night, (through) Farmington, Bloomfield, Aztec, there’s lots of light, (and you) head down to the Lybrook, Counselor area. It’s really dark, and all of sudden, you see these five fireballs. It’s just crazy,” – Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico Energy Coordinator with the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, told Laura Paskus of KUNM in September 2015.

Credit Laura Paskus - An oil well flaring off Hwy 550
Credit Laura Paskus – An oil well flaring off Hwy 550.


New Mexico passed a state policy aimed at preventing groundwater contamination in 2008 (known as the “Pit Rule) following more than 700 self-reported cases of groundwater contamination by the oil and gas industry inside the state.

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Groundwater contamination is a big deal. It is nearly impossible to reverse in any relevant span of time. It is an even greater concern in the Southwest, where average rainfall has decreased and aquifers have already been pumped above recharge rates.


The process of fracking is unavoidably dangerous to drinking water sources. Toxic chemicals, many of which are toxic if ingested at any concentration, are mixed with large amounts of water and injected into wells at very high pressures.


Around 20-40% of this mixture returns to the surface (called flow back water), bringing up with it natural elements in the earth, including barium, arsenic, radium, and salt.


Gas production in the U.S. produces more than two billion gallons of fracking wastewater per day. This water is usually too contaminated to be purified with existing treatment methods.

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Fracking wastewater is categorized as “special wastes” by the EPA. This means that it is exempted from regulation as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).


Instead, the wastewater is either re-injected deeper underground or cleaned at a “brine treatment” plant, after which it is dumped into streams. The latter facilities have repeatedly and consistently incurred fines for failures to comply with the Clean Water Act. The former, and more common, process threatens groundwater and is the primary cause of the recent uptick in earthquakes in the Central U.S.

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Here’s a teaser from Abrahm Lustgarten’s article on deep injection wells, as published in Scientific American:

Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water. …

There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.


Every coal bed gas well uses between 50,000 to 350,000 gallons of water, considerably less than the 2 to 10 million gallons used per horizontal shale well. Yet, this remains an enormous amount of water to consistently use and contaminate, in a State unsure of how it will access water at all in the near future.


Given New Mexico’s current and future state of water insecurity, one might suspect a battle between farmers and the industry over water rights. Instead, farmers began selling their water to oil and gas developers during the 2013 drought to supplement their loss of agricultural income that year.


Does gas really have a higher market value than food and water?


For some living in the Basin, however, efforts to push back continue. The San Juan Citizens Alliance is suing the federal government to cease approval of new wells near Chaco Park. The Park is a site of historical significance to local tribes, (not to mention US civilization,) who assert the environmental impact of further development has not been adequately studied.


Chaco Park was once the home of the Anasazi, a tribal people whose society stretched across northwest New Mexico. As billboards and placards for Native American tourist traps became more ubiquitous in the Western part of the state, I was reminded of Jarrod Diamond’s book, “Collapse,” and his chapter on this intriguing society.

The Anasazi developed a complex agricultural society that flourished for over five centuries, in a geography where few others have managed to survive before or since.


Diamond uses tree rings and midden analysis to piece together the story of the people who constructed the largest pre-Columbian buildings in North America.  The Anasazi’s success was built on the unsustainable and unchecked use of timber. Deforestation caused salinization of the soil and water, destroying the Anasazi’s food supply.

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A drought around 1130 A.D. caused a drop in the groundwater table, pressing further strife onto the mini-empire. Some turned to cannibalism and internal warfare. Others simply starved to death. The Chaco Anasazi society disappeared sometime between 1150 and 1200.


How could the most intelligent species on the planet, organized into high-achieving societies, overlook those resources most necessary for their own survival, for the sake of short-term prestige and convenience?

Stieglitz’s “Georgia O’Keeffe – After Return from New Mexico,” 1929. Source: New York Times

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