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Who will protect communities of color from climate disaster?

a photo of a ranch house with an oil refinery in the background
Richard Sexton; The Historic New Orleans Collection. (Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection)

Imagine waking up every day to the smell of sulfur dioxide, gas fumes and other foul-smelling chemicals. Even if you don’t live near gas export terminals on the Gulf Coast, you know the air must smell bad. Imagine your children are constantly breathing these chemicals and your elders have among the highest incidence of cancer in the nation. Now imagine that you also hear daily sirens warning of gas leaks and potential catastrophic explosions. What you’ve imagined — this is the reality for Gulf Coast communities.

Too many of our coastal communities are being sacrificed to the fossil fuel industry, an industry whose main product is driving climate change, leading to rising seas, and causing increasingly volatile, damaging storms. And while the billions in investments in clean energy sources and climate mitigation passed by Congress as part of the Inflation Reduction Act are undeniably historic, they won’t save these communities.

Despite all evidence that the U.S. must dramatically scale back the production and use of fossil fuels — not just to save frontline communities but to protect communities throughout our country and the world that are harmed by climate change — the industry is planning to actually expand export capacity at 18 projects along the Gulf Coast.

The little-known agency that, historically, has almost always approved these facilities is called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The commission reviews proposals to construct and operate interstate gas pipelines, storage facilities and export terminals. For too long, FERC has not done its duty to thoroughly review those proposals and has been failing Black, brown and Indigenous Americans. People of color who are already overburdened by toxic and dangerous facilities in their neighborhoods are the same people bearing the brunt of climate change exacerbated by those facilities.    

For decades, FERC failed to properly scrutinize the damage new export terminals and other gas infrastructure do to communities of color. One startling example: In 2020, commissioners approved construction of new pipelines and an export facility in the Rio Grande area of Texas, despite recognizing that the project would pose health threats — primarily to Hispanic or Latino people who are already overburdened by pollution.

The current Democratic chairman, Richard Glick, has recognized that it’s well past time for FERC to step up and do more than it had done in the past. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed, sending the Rio Grande decision and another permit issue back to FERC, ruling that the agency’s analysis was “deficient.” 

Early this year, the commission proposed plans to change how the agency evaluates the environmental justice and climate impacts of new gas infrastructure. These long-overdue reforms would help ensure that FERC fulfills its responsibility to take a hard look at the impacts of proposed projects on communities of color and the climate. But it seems after renewed protests from some Republicans in Congress and the gas industry, FERC walked back its reforms, and the new protections communities of color so urgently need are now tangled up in the insider politics of Washington. 

As advocates for Gulf Coast communities imperiled by terminal development, we — John Beard and Roishetta Ozane — know and live the damage: toxic plumes poisoning drinking water in Lake Charles, dead fish floating in the Calcasieu River and children’s lungs compromised by harmful chemicals while they play in their backyards. To underscore the urgency of this issue, we’ve invited FERC commissioners to tour our communities and witness the environmental and social devastation resulting from export facilities and other gas infrastructure. 

As attorney general of Maryland, Brian Frosh, participates in a coalition of attorneys general demanding that FERC fulfill its obligations under federal law and put environmental safeguards in place immediately. Research clearly demonstrates that new gas infrastructure projects will have dire environmental impacts on local communities and the climate. And given its duty to protect the public interest, FERC must conduct comprehensive analyses of whether a proposed project is needed and aligned with state and national climate goals, rather than, as in the past, simply relying on the say-so of the project developer and affiliated corporations, whose interests lie in profits. 

FERC must not simply ignore the message from the D.C. Circuit: If the commission does not follow the ruling, its decisions on these two policy statements will face significant legal risk. Communities of color cannot bear mistreatment any longer. We look forward to the commissioners’ visit to Texas and Louisiana, where they will see firsthand all that hangs in the balance for our children, our communities and our future.

John Beard is the director of Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas,

Brian Frosh is the attorney general of Maryland.

Roishetta Ozane is the organizing director for Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas for Healthy Gulf, as well as the founder, director and CEO of The Vessel Project of Louisiana.

Tags Big Oil BIPOC Brian Frosh Climate change FERC Fossil fuels Global warming Health Inflation Reduction Act oil and gas people of color Pollution
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