The Fossil Fuel Industry Is Racist

The Fossil Fuel Industry Is Racist
Flames rise in a burn-off of toxic gases at an oil refinery near Los Angeles. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

There’s a scientific consensus that coal, oil, and gas are frying the planet and will have to be phased out completely to secure a livable future. It’s also clear that each of the three fossil-based energy sources creates deadly, toxic pollution, providing yet another reason to retire the industry. A new report — released by Greenpeace, the Movement for Black Lives, and Gulf Coast Centre for Law and Policy on Tuesday morning — argues there’s a third reason we must wind down the fossil fuel economy: It’s racist.

The new report is a meta-analysis of more than 300 previous studies to put those individual pieces in context. That builds a more coherent picture than one-off studies of a specific location or pollutant. The findings show just how entangled fossil fuels and racism are.

“Previous studies have offered compelling evidence of the disproportionate harms of fossil fuel pollution in specific places or within specific industries,” Tim Donaghy, senior research specialist with Greenpeace USA and lead author of the report, said. “But we know that fossil fuel racism goes beyond a single corporation or refinery — it’s embedded in the fossil fuel business model.”

The authors detail how each stage of the life cycle of fossil fuels — including extraction, processing, transport, and combustion — generate pollution that disproportionately affects communities of colour and poor communities. Each aspect of this chain also contributes to the climate crisis, which the authors show also harms poor communities of colour most.

One of the clearest illustrations of the uneven harm from oil, gas, and coal is the distribution of air pollution. Poor air quality tied to fossil fuel combustion killed more than 350,000 people in the U.S. annually. But the report notes that burden isn’t equally distributed; the authors found evidence that particulate matter — a deadly type of pollution including soot, smoke, dust, and other solid and liquid particles that hang in the air — tied to coal and cars has a disproportionate impact on Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor Americans. In fact, their research suggests that communities of colour — especially poor, Black communities — are exposed to 50% more particulate matter compared to the overall U.S. population. These compounds can disrupt heart and respiratory functions.

The report also includes original research conducted by the authors specifically focused on the effects of petrochemical refining for things like plastics, which the industry is tying its future to. Donaghy used an existing analysis by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which examined federal Environmental Protection Agency data on what kinds of communities are being impacted by air emissions from polluting facilities. He found that the majority of the nation’s 133 petrochemical facilities impact poor communities of colour. He then compared the sector as a whole to other polluting sectors and found that oil, gas, and petrochemical refining are among the most disproportionately polluting sectors of the economy, even when compared to other big sources of pollution like steel processing and heavy manufacturing.

The changes to the climate the industry has locked in are also being foisted on communities of colours. Yet the report notes the solutions are out there to address these injustices.

Greenpeace's original analysis of the nation's petrochemical plants. (Illustration: Greenpeace USA, Gulf Coast Centre for Law and Policy, and the Movement for Black Lives) Greenpeace's original analysis of the nation's petrochemical plants. (Illustration: Greenpeace USA, Gulf Coast Centre for Law and Policy, and the Movement for Black Lives)

“There’s this imperative that we really do need to reduce our fossil fuel consumption in production,” said Donaghy. “And that opens up the possibility that a lot of these communities could have this health burden lifted from them that they’ve been bearing for decades.”

The report includes specific case studies of the ways communities can be helped by closing down polluting facilities. For instance, shutting down one oil refinery in Canada’s Oakville, a suburb of Toronto, eliminated 6,000 tons of sulphur dioxide pollution each year, and thereby helped lower the rate of hospitalisation for respiratory illnesses in the area. Similarly, when officials shuttered a series of coal and oil power plants across California in the early 2000s, area residents saw a “significant decline in preterm births.”

This all means that climate policy can benefit public health. But not just any climate policy will do.

“We need to make sure that we’re not kind of going down to the cul de sac or the dead end of just thinking only about carbon and not thinking about air pollution,” said Donaghy.

That means avoiding policies like carbon offsets, which do nothing to curb the local impacts of extraction and instead embracing bold and ambitious policies. The report endorses the recently introduced THRIVE Act which aims to invest a minimum of $US1 ($1) trillion per year for the next decade to create 15 million good-paying jobs, cut climate pollution in half by 2030, and ensure at least 50% of new investments directly benefit frontline and disadvantaged communities. It also champions the Environmental Justice For All Act and Climate Equity Act, both of which prioritise climate solutions for low-income communities of colour. And it calls for the institutionalization of strict policies to force firms to obtain free, prior and informed consent from affected Indigenous communities before constructing new polluting projects.

“We need to address carbon. But we’re also saying what environmental justice communities have been saying for many decades of course,” said Donaghy. “We’re saying that climate policy … needs to really address air pollution and water pollution and environmental justice disparities in addition to making sure we reduce carbon emissions.”