New Study Details “Fossil Fuel Racism In The United States”

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WASHINGTON DC–A new peer-reviewed study details the risks of President Biden’s support for expanded fossil fuel production and exports. Despite campaign promises to take on fossil fuels, Biden has approved massive extraction projects and allowed a surge of crude and LNG exports.

Against the backdrop of attacks on environmental justice in Congress – including the recent rollbacks to NEPA in the Fiscal Responsibility Act – and the Supreme Court’s undercutting of the Clean Water Act, the study titled “Fossil fuel racism in the United States: How phasing out coal, oil, and gas can protect communities” finds that fossil fuels impose unfair and unjust health harms on Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor communities.

The study identifies the public health harms as well as the disproportionate impacts on communities at each stage of the coal, oil, and gas lifecycles – extraction, processing, transport, and combustion. It was authored by experts from Greenpeace USA, Salem State University, and Taproot Earth and published in Energy Research & Social Science.

The publication draws from 200+ academic studies which reveal a consistent pattern: fossil fuel pollution is associated with asthma, birth complications, cancer, respiratory disease, heart conditions, and premature mortality. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities bear a disproportionate burden of these harms. These same communities are hit hardest by the impacts of the climate crisis.

Additionally, the study concludes that policies solely focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions without reducing fossil fuel usage could fail to reduce local air and water pollution, fail to alleviate public health harms, and end up perpetuating the racially inequitable impacts of the fossil fuel economy. Black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and low-income populations already have an elevated burden of exposure to air pollutants that can harm the respiratory system known as PM2.5, a pattern that is consistent across nearly all emission source types. Poorly designed climate policies could concentrate this pollution in community “hotspots” even as overall carbon emissions decline.

Dr. Tim Donaghy, research manager at Greenpeace USA and a co-author of the report, said: “Fossil fuels harm both the climate and our health and must be phased out as fast as possible. But if our climate policies only focus on reducing carbon, we are missing an opportunity to greatly improve health in impacted communities. Carbon-centric policies being pushed by the oil and gas industry won’t alleviate fossil fuel racism and could worsen it for communities who already bear the brunt of the industry’s pollution. A better approach is to shift the focus to the root cause of both carbon and pollution, which are fossil fuels themselves. Policymakers should explicitly mitigate air and water pollution, advance environmental justice, and meaningfully include historically targeted communities in climate policy-making and implementation.”

Noel Healy, professor of Geography and Sustainability at Salem State University and co-author of the report, said: “Alarmingly, Biden is approving new drilling at a faster rate than the Trump administration. This includes approving “carbon bombs” at the Alaska Willow and the LNG Alaska Project, and recently breaking a major G7 climate promise by financing an Indonesian oil refinery. Continued approval of harmful and extractive fossil fuel licenses is a catastrophic climate and public health failure.”

The study argues that systemic racism enables the fossil fuel industry to avoid paying the true cost of its pollution by passing it on to communities of color. It identifies fossil fuel racism as a subset of environmental racism characterized by the disproportionate and racialized effects of climate change, fossil fuel extraction, transportation, processing, and consumption on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor populations.

The fossil fuel industry is fueling a public health crisis that disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities. Healy said: “We can tackle the climate crisis, improve public health, and confront systemic racism by phasing out fossil fuels and enacting a Green New Deal.”

The study makes the following recommendations:

  • The U.S. should implement a managed phase out of fossil fuel production to drive absolute pollution reductions in ‘sacrifice zones’ and to align our policy with 1.5°C pathways.
  • Enact a Green New Deal to halt climate change and build a more just and regenerative economy.
  • Protect and expand democratic spaces.


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