Oil and gas production on public lands

Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states

As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?

A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of  federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.

Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include ColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaUtah and Wyoming.

Close up of threat map in Colorado

Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado

In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).

Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.

Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range

Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.

But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.

Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.

In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.

State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.

New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people

With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.

Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well. 

Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.

Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.

Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution

Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.

Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. 

With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.

Utah: Air quality far below federal standards

Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.

North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity

The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.

Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.

You own public lands, but they may be hurting you

Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by FracTracker for a project by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.

Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we finalize strong federal regulations that will help curb the main pollutant of natural gas – methane – from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

We need to clean up our air now

With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.

Federal regulations by the BLM should also help decrease the risk to communities living near oil and gas wells and helping cut methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025 to meet climate change reduction goals.

Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.


By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

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