Oil and Gaslighting: The American Petroleum Institute Misses the Mark on Environmental Justice

December 8, 2017
Charise Johnson
Former contributor

Last month, the American Petroleum Institute (API) made a feeble attempt at refuting the findings of the latest report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force, “Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities.” The report highlights the disproportionate risk of health problems facing Black communities in proximity to oil and gas facilities.

Specifically, the study found that more than one million Black people live within half a mile of natural gas facilities and in counties where the cancer risks from natural gas facilities emissions are higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern. The analysis considers risks associated with oil and gas facilities, while recognizing the various other sources of pollution with which Black communities are burdened. In a post on the API site, Uni Blake, a toxicologist by training and current scientific adviser to API, attempted to discredit the work of environmental justice groups and to diminish the environmental health issues facing communities of color.

Objectivity, that old chestnut

Ms. Blake used the age-old qualifier of “I am an objective scientist” to denigrate the very real problems facing Black communities. She claims that “…the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted [my emphasis], within the African American community.” In other words, objectivity for API means refusing to acknowledge the importance of traditional knowledge from local communities in developing research questions. “Objectivity” to API means instilling doubt about links between pollution from industry operations and negative health impacts. This is not new for API, which has for decades been in the business of spreading disinformation on science, but it is still appalling.

Racism in environmental health and scientific methodology

Racism in scientific research has always been an issue. Prejudices abound in research questions and methodology, and even the way results are interpreted. As the NAACP astutely captured in their report, “The nature of the vulnerability of African American and other person of color fence-line communities is intersectional—subject to connected systems of discrimination based on social categorizations such as race, gender, class, etc.”

Ms. Blake is clearly not coming from a place of understanding of the historical and current inequities placed on Black Americans, which is inexcusable since environmental injustices have long been documented. An extensive and expanding body of scientific evidence finds that people of color and those living in poverty are located more often in communities—termed environmental justice communities or overburdened communities—that are exposed to disproportionately higher levels of environmental pollution than Whites or people not living in poverty (See here, here, here, here, *pauses to take a breath* here, here, here, here, here, and even here).

Ms. Blake’s piece lacks actual evidence to back her claims.  Here are a couple of Ms. Blake’s arguments, followed by my comments:

  • “…attacking our industry is the wrong approach and detracts from the real work that should be done to reduce disparately high rates of disease among African Americans.”

Leslie Fleischman, a Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author, clarified the goal of the report: “The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among the population and so, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it is even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.” It would seem that API is detracting from the purpose of the study, mischaracterizing what was demonstrated by the NAACP study.

  • “Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations—such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care.”

All I hear is: “Well, if you changed your lifestyle, had more money, and didn’t have such weak genes, you wouldn’t have health problems! Our operation has nothing to do with your inability to handle the hazardous air pollutants.”  The report she linked to maintains that “Asthma has a strong genetic component, although for this to be manifest interaction with environmental factors [emphasis mine] must occur.” Somehow, she interpreted this to mean “your house is too dusty and you have mold, these health problems are your fault alone,” thereby ignoring the contributions of oil and gas industry on health impacts to the substandard environment people are then forced to endure, as well as putting the onus on the very communities she recognizes as having “socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities” (e.g. lower income, less access to health care).

As for preventative care, here’s a thought—oil and gas facilities need to quit finding loopholes and touting their successes meeting the bare minimum standards (not to mention constantly pushing for less stringent rules or delaying them). From that same study, “Exposure to airborne allergens and other irritants [emphasis mine] both triggers asthma attacks and is associated with the development of chronic asthma in infants.” Why not investigate some of those other irritants, API?

Same old stuff, different day

This tactic of diverting attention from the real issue is not new to environmental justice researchers and advocates. We’ve even seen it recently with pushback from the Delaware Department of Health on our recent collaborative report. In October the Union of Concerned Scientists—working closely with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections Inc., and Coming Clean—released a report that demonstrated the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in Delaware’s industrial corridor. We analyzed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data for risk of cancer and respiratory illnesses stemming from toxic outdoor air pollution, as well as proximity of communities to industrial facilities that pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident.

In November, Karyl Rattay from the Delaware Division of Public Health wrote an op-ed personally attacking UCS and the report findings. She said, “The most common risk factors for cancers are related to lifestyle behaviors (e.g. tobacco use) and genetics.” So, lifestyle choices carry more weight than environmental factors when determining cancer risks? Not only is this argument a baseless racist victim-blaming line, but it shows that Dr. Rattay failed to even understand our study.  The study, like the NAACP study, focused solely on environmental risks to communities. Of course, we all know that our health is determined by a wide range of factors. That’s why it is so important to study the contribution of environmental exposures. Otherwise, such risks are often (and have historically been) overlooked.

I urge Ms. Blake and API to stop blaming the communities living in the danger zone. It’s time for the oil and gas industry to take accountability for their polluting ways and honor their commitment to protect the health and safety of the communities where they operate.