The Proof in the Pipeline: Fossil Fuels and Social Inequality

Arina Abbott oversees marketing at Green Alpha Advisors, an asset manager that invests public equities in the innovation-driven, sustainable economy.

While fossil fuel risk has reared its ugly head in the form of blazing fires, stronger storms, and oil-stained beaches, the U.S. remains home to the highest number of climate change deniers in the world.

Meanwhile, systemic inequality has continued to demonstrably strengthen its grip on American society and its economy, yet people still have no idea how unequal society has actually become.

And it’s no wonder. Not only have fossil fuel companies long misinformed and concealed knowledge about the atmospheric impact of their activities, but they also continue to deflect when confronted with the blatantly unequal impacts of their activities on marginalized groups.

In November, the American Petroleum Institute (API) wrote off an NAACP and Clean Air Task Force report that demonstrates African American communities face elevated health risks associated with disproportionate exposure to oil and gas air pollution. API’s scientific adviser wrote that the health disparities illustrated by the study were not due to oil and gas exposure, but to other unrelated factors such as “genetics.” This offensive and lazy response ignores the Clean Air Task Force’s extensive findings linking oil and gas exposure to toxic air pollution across communities and regions.

The evidence doesn’t stop there. From the time an oil pump jack’s location is assigned to the time an internal combustion engine exhales its final puff, fossil fuel dependence enforces and exacerbates systemic inequalities.

At the Source: Fossil Fuel Projects Enforce Inequality from Day One

Despite transport companies’ assurances that spill rates are de minimis, the proof is in the pipeline. The International Energy Agency quantifies that the likelihood of a train oil spill incident is six-times higher than that of a pipeline, while pipelines spill three-times more oil per 1 billion barrel-miles of crude oil transported. Just last November, TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline leaked at least 210,000 gallons of oil in northeast South Dakota.

To make matters worse, inherently risky fossil fuel projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) are disproportionately placed in marginalized communities. In DAPL’s case, the pipeline was initially routed upstream of Bismarck, only to be rerouted partly due to its proximity to the state capital’s drinking-water wells. Instead, DAPL now flows beneath Lake Oahe—a mere half mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s primary water source. The pipeline reroute is a classic case of “not in my backyard.”

Countless examples of inequitable oil and gas exposure risk exist beyond hazardous pipelines. A study conducted in southern Texas found that fracking wastewater—which contains toxic chemicals that can lead to cancer, hormone disruption, and a host of other downstream ill effects—is more likely to be disposed in areas predominantly populated by people of color and people living in poverty. For every disposal well, an average of 5.2 million liters of fracking fluid returns to the surface. There’s no doubt that this wastewater poses a serious public health problem—a burden that is primarily laid on people of color and people living in poverty.

In coal country, miners and their families face health and environmental risks far worse than those faced by most affluent urban neighbors, and they are routinely misled by officials assuring them prosperity. While coal executives quietly brace themselves for the ongoing decline of the coal industry, they continue to squeeze work out of mining families rather than investing in industries that will provide long-term livelihoods.

Rural communities are not alone. Many residents of Los Angeles, a city home to 6,171 oil and natural gas wells, are all too familiar with the ill effects of playing host to fossil fuel projects, but none are so familiar as residents of South Los Angeles and Wilmington.

In 2015, several organizations teamed up to sue the city of Los Angeles, claiming that the city routinely exempted projects from full environmental review and granted drilling applications on a discriminatory basis. The plaintiffs stated that the drilling rigs in the majority-black and Latino neighborhoods of South LA and Wilmington were dirtier, louder, and ill-equipped to protect residents from the projects’ dust, sound, and lights. Extraction projects in wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods, on the other hand, were granted quieter, cleaner rigs surrounded by higher walls to protect residents from air, sound, and light pollution.

Unsurprisingly, Wilmington’s cancer rate is among the highest in Southern California, and the incidence of headaches, nosebleeds, asthma, and eye irritation is common among residents.

With fossil fuels, these local risks bleed into the regional, the regional into the national, and the national into the global. These local instances of environmental inequality are not one-offs, but pervasive. Today, hundreds of studies conclude that ethnic minorities, indigenous groups, people of color, and low-income communities confront a higher burden of environmental exposure from air, water, and soil pollution.

As the reigning drivers of energy production and emissions since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels certainly play their part.

Cumulative Impacts: Climate Change Deepens Inequality

While the Dakota Access Pipeline, seeping fracking fluid, and south LA backyards riddled with extraction projects illuminate the ongoing, acute damage caused by fossil fuels, we need to look at the long game, too. The disproportionate consequences of environmental degradation are only set to worsen as climate change trundles down its “business-as-usual” path.

On a global scale, we’ve long seen the clear imbalance. The countries that have contributed least to the climate crisis are some of the most vulnerable to shifting precipitation patterns, the resulting erosion and drought, and rising sea levels.

Major emitters like the U.S. have set the stage for their own turmoil as well. A study published in Science found that climate change is likely to greatly intensify regional inequality between the northern and southern regions of the United States. The study determined that the poorest third of counties across the country, especially within states on the Gulf, may lose as much as 20 percent of their income.

What’s the source of this disparity? Agricultural yields in the South will plummet as energy costs climb, but the greatest cost will be to human lives. For every degree Celsius increase, every county between El Paso, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, could see mortality rates rise by 5.4 deaths, or 20 people for every 100,000. While some may attempt to escape the increasing heat waves of the South by migrating to more temperate areas in the North, the cost of moving will likely be a significant factor that locks many low-income families in place.

In Newtok, Alaska, the disproportionate impact of climate change and immobility has already made itself known. Temperatures are increasing two to three times faster in Alaska than on the mainland, amounting to a 6.3 degree Fahrenheit increase of average winter temperatures over the past 50 years. As the permafrost thaws beneath the village—eroding about 70 feet of land per year—Newtok’s only option becomes clear: relocation. The village’s barge landing, sewage lagoon, and landfill have already been lost. Next to go is their source of drinking water, closely followed by their school and airport—all by 2020.

The price tag to avoid imminent crisis? The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that relocation would cost between $80 million and $130 million. The once nomadic Yupik community, which was settled as part of missionaries’ attempts to “civilize” native Alaskans, is only one of at least 200 Alaskan villages that lack critical funding to combat climate change’s swift encroachment.

These examples only scrape the surface—both in terms of who is affected and how. The scale of fossil fuel-driven damage and widening inequality are vast, and they will continue to collide as long as fossil fuels remain the global economy’s primary energy source. Aquifers contaminated by fracking wastewater and worsening natural weather events don’t happen in a vacuum. The people who are least equipped to pay for safe housing, insurance, legal fees, medical bills, major repairs, and moving costs are left exposed. From start to finish, fossil fuels enforce and worsen systemic inequalities.

The suffering of those on the losing end of inequality is bad enough, but the risks only begin there. As communities are subject to further exploitation by fossil fuel interests among other inequities, corrosion of social cohesion and resulting upheaval become increasingly probable.

While many may find it easier to believe that “developed” nations like the United States are immune to these risks, both data and communities’ lived experiences will continue to point the other way. Dr. Sarah Myhre, an earth scientist at the University of Washington, put it bluntly: “Sure, deny the data. Deny the models results. Deny the future projections. But how can you deny the irrevocable connection between human suffering and climate change? . . . Human suffering is not a zero-sum game, and only those blindly buffered by their own privilege could make this argument with a straight face and a cool calculation.”

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