Oil worker health care fund is sought by New Mexico congressman in swing district

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FILE - Pump jacks work in a field near Lovington, N.M., April 24, 2015. A bill aimed at compensating oilfield workers and immediate relatives for uninsured medical costs related to air-pollution and heat related illness has been introduced by Rep. Gabe Vasquez, a first-term congressman from New Mexico, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. – U.S. oil field workers and their immediate relatives would be compensated for uninsured medical costs related to air pollution and heat-related illness, under a bill introduced by a first-term Democratic congressman from New Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez said Wednesday his bill would require oil and natural gas companies to pay into a trust that provides reimbursement to workers for health costs associated with ailments linked to methane and smog, including respiratory problems such as asthma.

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Workers would be eligible to seek reimbursement for costs not covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, he said. Eligibility for specific medical conditions would be determined under federal labor and workplace safety guidelines.

Vasquez said the proposal is an outgrowth of concerns he has heard from oil field workers in southeastern New Mexico — and his observations about extensive profits and executive compensation among major petroleum companies. New Mexico is the nation's second-largest oil producer behind Texas.

“If you're an energy worker in Hobbs or Carlsbad who has a child who has asthma, you would benefit from this legislation,” Vasquez said.

Annual contributions to a health care trust for oil workers would be required of energy companies with annual revenues over $50 million. Those companies would have to pay into the fund the same amount of money as they pay their 10 highest-paid employees, including bonuses and deferred compensation.

The bill has little chance of passing in the GOP-controlled House, where Republicans this year approved a package that would sharply increase domestic production of fossil fuels and ease permitting restrictions that delay pipelines, refineries and other projects.

The initiative still marks a shift in focus from an unfettered support of the oil industry under Vasquez's Republican predecessor, Yvette Herrell, and her criticism of energy policies under the Biden administration that she said hindered production of oil and other fossil fuels.

Vasquez flipped the district — which extends from the U.S. border with Mexico to Albuquerque — to Democratic control in 2022, under newly drawn congressional districts that divvied up a major oil-producing region of New Mexico among three districts. Republicans are challenging the redistricting in state district court.

The bill from Vasquez includes compensation for heat-related illness in the workplace — an area of increasing concern as the energy sector and other industries contend with record-breaking temperatures this summer. President Joe Biden in July announced new steps aimed to protect workers, including hazard alerts for extreme heat, improved forecasting and better access to drinking water on the job.

Vasquez announced details of the health compensation bill at a gathering in Hobbs, accompanied by advocates for the immigrant-rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido. The event included testimonials from oil field workers and their spouses, who spoke in Spanish about frustrations with working conditions.

“In reality my heart breaks because we're left with the effects of this industry and the corporations that don't pay what they should for it to be a just system,” Vasquez said, also in Spanish. “I ask you today to support us in the proposed legislation.”

The bill is modeled after a compensation program for coal miners disabled by black lung disease, under the provisions of a 1969 law, Vasquez said.