California’s hypocrisy on fossil fuels


California is a behemoth. America’s largest state is also larger than a number of the world’s nations, and — thanks to powerhouses like Hollywood and Silicon Valley — usually ranked as one of the Top 10 economies on the planet. That means California has its own foreign policy, and that it often grapples with nation-sized issues…like combating climate change.

In fact, the Golden State has an admirable record of adopting sweeping environmental policies — such as a push for widespread use of electric cars, which will help tackle the longstanding smog problem in Southern California. No wonder that the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, flew to Paris this week with a delegation to tout everything that California is doing to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution.

But as an environmental-justice advocate — Kelvin Sauls, a Methodist minister and member of the group Californians Against Fracking — wrote this week in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, there is also a whiff of hypocrisy in what Brown and his Sacramento-to-Paris posse are up to. While the state has established a cap-and-trade type program to control carbon emissions statewide, it’s done little to regulate drilling activities and pollution in low-income neighborhoods.

For example, notes Sauls:

I serve as senior pastor at the Holman United Methodist Church in South L.A.’s West Adams district. My neighborhood is tightly packed with historic homes, apartments, housing for seniors, a convalescent home and a home for nuns. Children ride their bikes and play basketball in a parking lot near the church. Several schools are located just a few blocks away. Only a wall and a plot of asphalt separate homes in the neighborhood from some 30 active oil wells at the Murphy drill site, operated by Freeport-McMoRan Inc. Oil company workers stand on one side of that wall, dressed head to toe in protective gear and masks, while kids live and play on the other, unprotected and complaining of headaches, nosebleeds and asthma.

These issues are not unique to West Adams — just ask the residents of Porter Ranch, forced out of their homes because of an uncontrollable methane leak at a Southern California Gas Co. facility. But the worst situations are in the poorest communities.

In University Park, a neighborhood only a couple of miles away from my church, a drilling site run by the Allenco Energy Co. was shut down because of community pressure but only after two federal investigators fell ill with nausea and headaches after visiting the site. The Environmental Protection Agency found that the oil company was not taking required precautions to shield the surrounding area from pollutants.

Living less than a half-mile from active oil extraction is considered unsafe, yet a report by Community Health Councils found that 580,000 Angelenos live within just a quarter of a mile — a mere 1,320 feet — from an active well. The state’s own scientists have raised alarms about the risks. Nearly six months ago, the California Council on Science and Technology released a report on the dangers of oil operations in dense urban settings. Among other things, it recommended mandatory setbacks around oil wells to minimize human exposure to toxins. Despite the documented threat and the technology council’s recommendation, Los Angeles’ elected officials have yet to establish a human health and safety buffer to shield homes, schools and hospitals from oil extraction.

This just goes to show what a number of environmental activists have been saying for a long time — that there’s no clean way to extract fossil fuels, and the brunt of the damage is borne by the poor, by ethnic and racial minorities and by the politically powerless, even in a progressive-minded state like California. The first priority of government is to protect its citizens. If California can work to provide environmental justice for its working-class citizens, that might be the biggest contribution it can make toward fighting climate change.

Read Kelvan Sauls’ op-ed in Los Angeles Times:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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