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Fact Sheet: Fossil Fuel Racism Is a Public Health Crisis

by Ryan Schleeter

Climate destruction is only possible because our government tolerates racism. By phasing out fossil fuel production and holding polluting corporations accountable, we can fight the climate crisis and improve health for millions of people at the same time.

© Les Stone / Greenpeace

Fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas — lie at the heart of the crises we face, including public health, racial injustice, and climate change. The report Fossil Fuel Racism: How Phasing Out Oil, Gas, and Coal Can Protect Communities from Greenpeace USA, Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, and the Movement for Black Lives synthesizes existing research and provides new analysis to illustrate the scale and severity of this public health crisis. We find that the fossil fuel industry contributes to public health harms that kill hundreds of thousands of people in the United States each year and disproportionately endanger Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities.

Key Findings

National

  • Air pollution from fossil fuels killed 8.7 million people globally in 2018 alone, including 350,000 people in the United States. 
  • Overall, air pollution in the United States has declined over the last several decades. But communities of color — especially Black and Latinx communities — remain the most exposed to toxic air. 
  • People of color — especially Black people — in the US are more exposed to fine particulate matter pollution, which contributes to respiratory illness and death. Black Americans have 1.54 times the exposure to particulate matter compared to the overall population. 
  • Recent studies reveal a relationship between racist policies of the past like redlining and exposure to extreme heat, higher rates of asthma, and proximity to oil drilling today.
  • Nationally, 17.6 million people live within one mile of an active oil or gas well and more than 6.1 million people live within three miles of an oil and gas refinery. Air pollution from living near refineries and/or wells is associated with everything from respiratory illness to cancer.
  • Pollution from natural gas infrastructure — including pipelines, drilling sites, and processing plants — has increased the risk of cancer for 1 million Black Americans. It’s also contributed to 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days for Black children.
  • Original analysis from Greenpeace reveals that oil, gas, and petrochemical refining are among the most disproportionately polluting sectors of the economy, even when compared to other heavily polluting industries. 

Regional, state, and local

  • In south Texas, both fracking wastewater wells and oil and gas flares disproportionately harm Latinx communities. Latina women in the Eagle Ford shale — the site of a major fracking boom — face a significantly higher risk of giving birth prematurely. 
  • If completed, the proposed Formosa petrochemical plant in St. James, Louisiana would likely double toxic air pollution (including benzene and ethylene oxide) in the region, which already bears the nickname “Cancer Alley” following decades of industrial pollution. 
  • Closing an oil refinery in the Toronto suburb of Oakville eliminated 6,000 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution per year and helped reduce hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses in the area. 
  • In Richmond, California — a predominantly Black and Latinx city in the San Francisco Bay Area — emergency room visits increased sevenfold after a major fire at the Chevron Richmond refinery in 2012.
  • After a series of coal and oil power plants were closed across California in the early 2000s, researchers found a significant decline in preterm births for women living in nearby communities. 

Policy Solutions

President Biden himself has outlined four priorities for his administration: health, economic recovery, racial equity, and the climate crisis. By confronting fossil fuel pollution, he can address all four at once. By taking advantage of ‘natural experiments’ when refineries and power plants are retired, researchers have already found measurable improvements in the health of nearby communities. 

The Fossil Fuel Racism report includes specific executive actions and legislation designed to rein in fossil fuel production, transition to a clean, equitable economy, and invest in historically targeted communities. Our policy recommendations are rooted in Greenpeace USA’s Just Recovery Agenda and the Movement for Black Lives’ Red, Black, and Green New Deal platform. 

  1. End fossil fuel racism and reverse the legacies of historical injustices. Pass the Environmental Justice For All Act and Climate Equity Act. Require air and water pollution reductions in environmental justice communities with a “No Hotspots” policy. Mitigate cumulative pollution impacts. Institutionalize Free, Prior, and Informed Consent regarding federal actions affecting the lands, livelihoods, culture, and spirituality of Indigenous peoples. Enact stronger standards, monitoring, and enforcement for hazardous air pollutants and strengthen National Ambient Air Quality Standards under the Clean Air Act.

  2. Phase out fossil fuel production. Pass the End Polluter Welfare Act to eliminate federal fossil fuel subsidies. Pass the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. Reinstate the crude oil export ban and prohibit exports of liquified natural gas and coal. Halt new fossil fuel leases and permits on public lands and waters, and reject new federal fossil fuel infrastructure permits. Strengthen “polluter pays” requirements on oil, gas, and coal companies. Establish a national plan to wind down existing fossil fuel permits, production, and infrastructure.

  3. Ensure no worker or community is left behind. Pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act to protect and expand the right of workers to organize. Mandate the use of project labor agreements, Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements, community benefit agreements, and high-road labor standards in any federally funded project. Create 250,00 high-quality job-years under a federal oil and gas well remediation program. Provide good jobs cleaning up abandoned mines and fostering economic development in coal communities. Establish a federal Energy Worker and Community Protection Fund to ensure economic security for workers and communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels.

  4. Enact a green and just economic recovery. Pass the THRIVE Act to invest at least $1 trillion per year for the next decade to create 15 million good jobs, cut climate pollution in half by 2030, ensure at least 50% of new investments directly benefit frontline and disadvantaged communities, ensure federal investments pass a rigorous environmental justice and equity screen to avoid exacerbating “pollution hotspots,” and uphold rigorous labor, climate, and equity standards.
  5. Protect and expand our democracy to make it work for all people. Pass the For the People Act (H.R.1 / S.1) and John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 4) to give more electoral power to the people and protect against racist voter suppression tactics. Grant statehood to Washington, D.C., by passing H.R.51. Enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling. End the Jim Crow filibuster. Enact the BREATHE Act to protect communities from police brutality and racial injustice by investing in Black communities and re-imagining community safety.

Click here to read the full report, Fossil Fuel Racism: How Phasing Out Oil, Gas, and Coal Can Protect Communities

Ryan Schleeter

By Ryan Schleeter

Ryan Schleeter is a senior communications specialist with Greenpeace USA covering climate and energy. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, Grist, GreenBiz, EcoWatch, and more. Find him on Twitter @ryschlee.

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