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American Petroleum Institute Dismisses Study Linking Oil, Gas Emissions to Disproportionate Health Risks for Black Americans

According to the study, over 6.7 million Black Americans live in the 91 U.S. counties with oil refineries. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Officials with the American Petroleum Institute are refuting the findings of a recent report highlighting the disproportionate risk of pollution-related health problems facing African-Americans, arguing that the disparities might be linked to several other factors, including genetics.

The study, published by the NAACP and nonprofit advocacy group Clean Air Task Force earlier this month, found that over 1 million African-Americans live within a half mile of existing oil and gas facilities, which are typically situated in what the study calls “fence-line” communities. As a result, African-Americans are more likely to face serious health risks caused by toxic pollution from nearby operations.

Researchers with the nation’s largest oil and gas trade organization are calling bs, however.

“I’ve read an NAACP paper released this week that accuses the natural gas and oil industry of emissions that disproportionately burden African American communities,” said Uni Blake, a scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs at API, in a blog post Nov. 16. “As a scientist, my overall observation is that the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities – reported or predicted – within the African-American community.”

“The health of African-American communities is a genuine cause for concern in our nation,” Blake continued. “But 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.”

The seasoned environmental toxicologist argued that scholarly research has attributed the health disparities to several other factors “that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations,” such as genetics, indoor allergens and lack of access to preventative care.

The NAACP and Clean Air Task Force have stuck to its guns and defended the findings. They maintained that oil and gas facilities in fence-line communities pose a much greater level of risk and that residents of those communities experience health conditions caused by those toxic exposures.

“The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among this population,” Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author Lesley Fleischman told Inside Climate News. “…So, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it’s even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.”

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy and administration of justice at Texas Southern University agreed, calling the API’s response to the joint study “an insult to the intelligence of not just African-Americans but [also] the intelligence of the American people who know better.”

Among other things, the landmark study revealed that the air in many Black communities violates the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards for ozone smog and that Black children are hampered by 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days per year due to the toxic air. Still, Blake contended that the focus should be on bringing people out of poverty, rather than attacking the oil and gas industries.

“The objective should be to address the underlying socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities, and one of the best vehicles is via the good jobs the natural gas and oil industry supports,” she wrote. ” … In short, the natural gas and oil industry demonstrates its commitment every day to ensure the protection of human health, safety and the environment for all Americans while providing millions of American families the benefits of affordable, reliable energy.”

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