By: Chela Garcia
Our government has a moral obligation to listen to voters and make decisions that protect the health of our communities. And when our government changes rules, it should have the interest of its taxpayers and citizens at heart.
Unfortunately, actions by the current administration tell a different story.
In 2014, NASA identified a methane cloud the size of Delaware over the Four Corners region. To help curb waste, the Bureau of Land Management adopted the Methane Waste Prevention Rule in 2016 that applied common sense regulations regarding repairs of leaking equipment and capturing natural gas rather than releasing it into the air or burning it off.
The rule established balance between oil and gas production and the protection of Nevada’s air, especially considering the fact that our neighbor, New Mexico, emits more methane from federally leased lands than any other state, and we all know air quality doesn’t stop at state lines.
Yet this fall, the Department of the Interior gutted the 2016 rule, rolling back its most important protections for the American people by relying on 30-year-old regulations. This was done despite a failed attempt to rescind the rule through the Republican-controlled Senate, half a million Americans voicing opposition to the proposed rollback, and 7 out of 10 Westerners, including a majority of Republicans, supporting strong BLM methane regulations.
The support wasn’t just relegated to environmentalists, either. Businesses, health organizations and Latino groups have spoken up with their support.
Sadly, the true costs of rolling back the rule will be realized sooner than later.
When natural gas, primarily in the form of methane, is released into the air, so too are harmful pollutants such as benzene, which are linked to cancer, and other ozone-forming pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks. The BLM methane rule helped fight the release of harmful pollutants into the air, which has a greater impact on Latino communities.
While more than half of the U.S. population lives in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone, Hispanics are 51 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone than are non-Hispanic whites. Latinos are disproportionately affected by the health impacts of oil and gas development — in fact 1.81 million Latinos live within a half-mile of existing facilities. In a report titled “Latino Communities At Risk: The Impact of Air Pollution from the Oil and Gas Industry,” the National Hispanic Medical Association and LULAC found that many Latino communities face an elevated risk of cancer due to toxic air emissions from oil and gas development.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., has been a strong supporter of the 2016 BLM methane rule, and with new Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., there is hope that Nevada will have two champions for reinstating strong federal methane regulations.
Gov. Steve Sisolak campaigned on a 50 percent renewable portfolio by 2030 and supported a correlated ballot measure that passed. With these strong platforms to protect the interests of Nevadans, it’s time to be forward-looking in demanding for state- and federal-based regulations of methane.
States and the federal government must step up and address these issues to protect taxpayers, public health, and the environment. Most importantly, we need a comprehensive federal rule that applies to all oil and gas development on public lands in order to minimize waste and reduce the impacts of methane emissions on communities.
Chela Garcia is director of conservation programs for the Hispanic Access Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group.