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Drone view of an oil or gas drill fracking rig pad in New Mexico with the sunset in the background
Image: Getty Images

Dr. Gunnar Schade, an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, is part of a research initiative raising renewed concerns about local air quality, specifically ozone levels, in the Carlsbad-Loving region of the Permian Basin in New Mexico.  

In addition to Texas A&M, the collaborative research crew includes scientists from the University of Toronto, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles, and a private company from Colorado. As part of their HEI Energy-funded study, they began tracking air quality data on April 16, 2023. Now at the halfway point of the one-year project, they have documented 31 days in which ground-level ozone levels surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency's eight-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard of 70 parts per billion.  

“Heightened air pollution levels, particularly ozone, carry significant health threats for local residents, ranging from asthma attacks and respiratory symptoms to cardiovascular issues and potential long-term health complications.” said USC's Dr. Jill Johnston.

In an effort to enhance public awareness regarding these health concerns, Schade and the research team will host an online webinar, set for Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 3 p.m. CST. During the webinar, they will discuss their research findings and delve into the wider implications.

“The Permian Basin has experienced a significant increase in unconventional oil and gas production over the past decade,” Schade said. “This growth has led to oil and gas operations being situated closer to and upwind of residential areas, heightening the risk of people being exposed to air contaminants.”  

The collected data thus far indicate significantly heightened levels of ozone, methane, benzene, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and other pollutants, including the release of airborne radioactivity. Notably, the oil and gas industry is a primary source of both VOC and nitrogen oxide emissions, which efficiently lead to the formation of ground-level ozone under intense sunlight conditions. VOC are primarily released as gases from oil field operations, while nitrogen oxide consists of highly reactive gases emitted by transportation vehicles as well as stationary engines used in the industry. Ground-level ozone plays a central role in summer smog and is associated with well-documented adverse health effects, including respiratory issues and the aggravation of asthma.  

“Our findings strongly support other recent work revealing air pollutant emissions that result in the exceedance of regulatory ozone standards from a growing industry," Schade said. "They also highlight the importance of considering public health concerns in affected communities."