Op-Ed: Any reform of Federal oil and gas leasing must include environmental justice

A family leaves church in October, 1998, in Lions, Louisiana. Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein Getty ImagesAdvertisement
After four years of an agenda that favored polluters, a new day is dawning at the Department of the Interior. In March, communities across the country rejoiced in Secretary Deb Haaland’s historic confirmation to lead the biggest and most powerful land management agency in the country. Now, she’s taking the opportunity to pursue real reforms of the broken oil and gas leasing system that has prioritized fossil fuel CEOs for too long. The possibilities for a cleaner, more equitable future are before us.

This will not be easy, but it is possible. Already, the Biden administration has turned its attention to the broken federal oil and gas leasing program by pausing all new leases on public lands. While this pause is in effect, I implore Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior to undertake an environmental justice review of the leasing program in order to address the racial discrimination within oil and gas operations. 

This review is an important first step in recognizing the injustices in the system, listening to the people who are impacted by them and hearing what their ideas are for reform. As the executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), I work with communities along the lower Mississippi River, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, that are harmed by environmental racism and face serious health threats from the more than 100 polluting facilities that release a deadly cocktail of poison each day. Throughout my nearly 30 years in this work, I have witnessed how the oil and gas industry has dominated the Gulf Coast region at the expense of Black communities, engulfing our neighborhoods with massive amounts of toxic pollution from oil refining and manufacturing.

This pollution flows through our backyards, school grounds and recreation centers, threatening our access to clean air and water and jeopardizing our health.  But all too often, the communities hit hardest by these dangers are ignored and left out of the conversation. We deserve better, and this leasing pause is the opportunity to give Secretary Haaland the chance to hear from us and to center justice and equity in reforms of the oil and gas program.

The environmental injustices our communities face are numerous. In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report that found the petroleum sector released over 11 million pounds of pollution in 25 Louisiana parishes, with many of these facilities operating in close proximity to Black residents. Within this pollution were chemicals widely known to cause cancer and damage heart and lung functions, making it difficult to breathe and often leading to premature death. And now, as studies show that air pollution exacerbates the impacts of the COVID-19 virus, the threat that oil and gas facilities pose to our communities is only being magnified. 

Unfortunately, air pollution is not the only concern. In coastal communities, redlining, oil spills and offshore drilling add to racial inequality. Following the BP oil drilling disaster, massive amounts of oil waste were disposed of in landfills next to Black communities, jeopardizing our water supplies. And as offshore drilling continues, our coastlines are deteriorating, leaving many areas without natural defenses to extreme weather events. To make matters worse, greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry are massive contributors to the climate crisis, which disproportionately affects our communities where floods, heat waves and other climate-induced disasters have become the norm. 

Communities in the Gulf Coast region are advocating for equitable energy solutions that create new, good-paying jobs, keep our air and water clean and our climate safe—but we need the support of the federal government. The existential threat of climate change and the troubling health disparities in Black communities are among the egregious impacts of reckless oil and gas development. 

President Biden has made it clear that reforming the leasing system is a top priority for his administration. Now, with the leasing pause presenting an opportunity to complete a comprehensive review, it is imperative that the administration and Secretary Haaland join forces with us to prioritize an environmentally and economically just transition from fossil fuel development. We are counting on it.

This is an opinion and analysis article.

Rights & Permissions

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)Beverly L. Wright, PhD., is the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She is also an environmental justice scholar, author and professor of sociology.

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Pasig, other Philippine rivers among biggest contributors to ocean plastic pollution

Gaea Katreena Cabico (Philstar.com) – June 10, 2021 – 5:12pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines was the largest contributing country to the plastic waste that reaches the ocean, with the Pasig River ranked as the most polluting river in the world, a study by a Dutch nonprofit showed.

According to a study of The Ocean Cleanup published in Sciences Advances last April, the Philippines is home to 28% of the rivers responsible for ocean plastic pollution.

The Philippines had 466 rivers out of the 1,656 rivers that accounted for nearly 80% of plastic inputs to the ocean.  

The 27-kilometer Pasig River, which flows through the capital region, was identified as the most polluted by plastics.

In 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte abolished the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, which was tasked to ensure the rehabilitation of Pasig River to its “historically pristine condition conducive to transport, recreation, and tourism.”

Previous studies found the Yangtze River in China—the third longest in the world—as the highest plastic emitting river but it only ranked 64th in the recent study.

Other rivers in the Philippines that dumped the most amount trash and plastic into the ocean were the following:

Rio de Grande de Mindanao
Cagayan de Oro
Malaking Tubig
Tambo, Pasay

Smaller rivers

Earlier studies ranked the largest rivers in the world as the top contributors to marine plastic pollution.

But The Ocean Clean study identified small and medium-sized rivers that flow through coastal cities in emerging economies as the most polluting.

“Coastal cities associated with urban drainage and paves surfaces presented the highest emission probabilities, particularly in regions with high precipitation rates,” the study read.

View the map here. 

Plastic pollution

The Philippines, an archipelagic nation, was frequently listed among the top contributors to marine plastic pollution along with China, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Malacañang called the ranking of Pasig River a “badge of dishonor” that could prompt “radical” actions from the government to rehabilitate Pasig River.   

The Climate Change Commission said the findings of the study raised “extreme concern” on the issue of mismanaged plastic waste in the country.

“[The study] supports the call of the commission for urgent efforts to solve the plastic crisis by implementing measures to regulate and in turn, halt the production of unnecessary plastics-made straws and stirrers, spoon and fork, and plastic labo, among others,” CCC said in a statement Wednesday.

The House of Representatives recently approved on second reading a bill which seeks to regulate the production, importation, sale, use and disposal of single-use plastic products. At the Senate, counterpart measures are still pending at the committee level.

In February, after 20 years, the National Solid Waste Management Commission included plastic soft drink straws and coffee stirrers in the list of non-environmentally acceptable products.

New material inspired by spider silk could help solve our plastic problem

Plastics are very useful materials. They’ve contributed significant benefits to modern society. But the unprecedented amount of plastics produced over the past few decades has caused serious environmental pollution.

Packaging alone was responsible for 46% out of 340 million tonnes of plastic waste generated globally in 2018. Although plastic recycling has increased significantly in recent years, most plastics used today are single use, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.

The demand for food will double by 2050. This will probably increase the amount of waste from food and its plastic packaging, putting poorer countries under tremendous pressure to manage waste disposal.

To tackle the issues of environmental damage, we need more sustainable materials that we can recycle or that biodegrade. There’s been a surge in plant-based plastics, but many of these can only be composted using industrial processes, not by people at home.

Now researchers at the University of Cambridge have found a way to make plastic from abundant and sustainable plant proteins. Inspired by spider silk, the film works in a way similar to other plastics, but it can be composted at home.

Types of plastic

Synthetic and non-biodegradable plastics commonly used for food packaging include polythene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and crystalline polythene terephthalate (CPET).

There are some processes in place for disposing of PET – namely mechanical and chemical recycling techniques – but most plastic around the world is still sent to landfills. PET can take hundreds of years to decompose and it’s non-biodegradable. This means it can continue to pollute the ecosystem for many years.

Making plastic requires lots of energy. Then, when plastics are thrown away, they cause environmental damage, including global warming, greenhouse gas emissions and damage to marine life.

Read more:
What happens to the plastic you recycle? Researchers lift the lid

On the other hand, there are some biodegradable plant-based plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polycaprolactone) (PCL) and polyhydroxyalkanotes (PHAs), which are friendlier to the environment than non-renewable polymers.

PLA polymers are produced from renewable resources and have the advantage of being recyclable and compostable. This makes PLA a much more environmentally friendly material than PET, PS and CPET. However, their long-term durability and stability are lower than their synthetic counterparts.

The new material

The new research has investigated the potential use of a biodegradable and renewable polymer, such as soy protein, to make a new material that could be an alternative to other plant-based plastics.

The researchers created a plant-based plastic and added nanoparticles – particles smaller than one millionth of a metre. This meant they could control the structure of the material to create flexible films, with a material that looks like spider silk on a molecular level. They’ve called it a “vegan spider silk”.

The new material in action.

The team used various techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy to study the structure of the film.

They analysed important properties, such as barrier properties and moisture absorption. They found the nanoparticles helped to increase the various properties – strength and long-term durability and stability – significantly.

By creating a plastic with a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process, made from sustainable materials itself, a significant amount of energy can be saved. This is one of the most exciting parts of this study.

This new material could help solve some of the problems that plastic pollution has caused to the environment – by introducing a material from renewable source with enhanced properties suitable for many engineering applications, including packaging.

The study could help to scale up the production of sustainable packaging materials, using natural resources and less energy consumption, while reducing the amount of plastic going into landfill.

All-trash ‘Mount Rushmore’ depicting G-7 leaders erected for summit

When world leaders gather at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, this week, they’ll be able to gaze out across the water and see their own faces on a massive Mount Rushmore-style sculpture made out of electronics waste.“Mount Recyclemore” sits on beach dunes opposite the Carbis Bay Hotel, where the summit is taking place. It depicts President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.The unusual piece of folk art is the work of Joe Rush, a sculptor who told the BBC that he had been commissioned by musicMagpie, a British retailer that sells secondhand electronics. Its goal is to call to attention to the environmental problems caused by electronic waste.“We have this looking at them, and hopefully we’re going to prick their conscience and make them realize they’re all together in this waste business,” Rush said. “The key message is talk to each other, and let’s sort this mess out.”Made from old scrap metal, keyboards, telephones, circuit boards, iPads, computer monitors and other unwanted items, the sculpture appeared this week and is still being completed, according to CornwallLive. Rush says that it highlights the fact that more electronic devices need to be made in a way that allows them to be reused or recycledElectronic waste often contains dangerous chemicals that can become environmental hazards when incinerated or dumped in a landfill. The United Nations and International Telecommunication Union estimate that 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste were produced in 2019, an all-time high.“E-waste poses a huge threat to the environment — and developed nations are among the worst offenders for producing it,” musicMagpie said in a statement. “With the G-7 summit taking place in Cornwall, we decided to create a sculpture to send a message.”Four of the G-7 nations — the United States, Japan, Germany and Britain — rank as the top producers of electronic waste, the company said.

Ocean scientists tell G7 to agree on polar regions and plastic pollution

G7 leaders should act to protect the world’s oceans by pushing for agreements on plastic pollution and protecting the Arctic and Antarctic, experts said.
Politicians meeting in Britain this week were also urged to treat poverty as a cause of pressure on natural resources.
The UK is pushing a green agenda at the G7 in the run-up to the Cop26 climate summit, which it is hosting in November.

Leaders are meeting in Cornwall, south-west England where, scientists said, the impact of rising sea levels is being felt.
At a briefing on Wednesday, scientists called for leaders to treat the oceans as a key part of climate change.

“I would say to the G7, we need to have much more ambitious targets on marine conservation,” said Prof James Scourse, a marine scientist at the University of Exeter.
“We need to strengthen the Antarctic Treaty that preserves the Antarctic continent.
“We need to strongly strengthen international agreements on non-exploitation of the Arctic, which is opening up because of sea ice and so on.
“I would also say that we need to look very carefully at trawling and put a complete moratorium on deep marine mining.”

The Carbis Bay Hotel, near St Ives, Cornwall, is hosting the G7 gathering. Bloomberg

Oceans in danger
Scientists called for the effects of climate change in the oceans to be highlighted, as well as the more visible ones on land.
“The invisibility of a problem gives politicians cover for not doing anything about it,” said Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of Exeter.
“We need to make this problem of what’s going on in the oceans much more visible.”
Prof Scourse said climate change already “baked in” to the oceans was bound to continue for a long time because it took about 1,000 years for global waters to completely mix.
“We can see the impact of climate change on terrestrial systems on the land, in the habitat in which we live as human beings,” he said.

The ocean is telling us that it’s under a lot of stress
Heather Koldewey

“But many of the most profound and immediate impacts that register the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing are oceanic.”
Prof Heather Koldewey, a senior technical adviser at the Zoological Society of London, said the G7 had an “enormous potential to really make a difference at this summit”.
Prof Koldewey called for a global treaty on plastic pollution to tackle what she said was one of the most visible aspects of damage to the ocean.
In one experiment, scientists are releasing bottles off the coast of Cornwall to provide data on how marine pollution spreads.
This data could feed into tsunami and weather warning systems, and attempts to understand the effect of climate change, Prof Koldewey said.
There is a “real opportunity” for the G7 to address the effects of climate change on the ocean, she said.
“That’s including things like overfishing, the half of the ocean that’s currently under very limited protection and looking at a high-seas treaty that’s robust.
“These are all things that we can actually do something about – a global treaty for plastic pollution and others. There is this real opportunity to act.
“We’re asking people to listen to the science and also to listen to the ocean. The ocean is telling us that it’s under a lot of stress.”

A volunteer collects plastic waste and debris on the French coast. AFP 

Poverty and climate crisis
The UK this week promoted a commitment by 80 countries to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
The target was backed by G7 environment ministers at an online preparatory summit last month.
Hans-Otto Poertner, who co-chairs a working group of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the G7 could help to bring about a social transformation that was needed to address the causes of climate change.
“If we bring the countries together and look at the countries with the largest and strongest economic power, they are the ones that actually should also lead on that transformation,” he said.
“The equality issue and the poverty eradication issue, that is so much the root cause of the pressure on natural systems.
“We need transformation in the industrial systems, in the economic systems, and in the way society functions.”

Water, at the heart of Africa's environmental challenges

Water is essential to the balance of the environment. As a liquid, it contributes to the formation of landforms and the emergence of life (plant, animal and human), and remains essential for its maintenance. As a gas, water forms a screen in the atmosphere and protects the biosphere from solar ultraviolet radiation. Unfortunately, in Africa, this resource is unevenly distributed and degraded due to a lack of sustainable and integrated management. This is compounded by persistent water stress caused by climate change.
The environment is full of different water resources. Surface water includes all running or stagnant water bodies in direct contact with the atmosphere. This includes rivers and lakes. According to statistics published in 2019 by the African Water Association (AfWA), three lakes in Africa account for 30% of the world’s freshwater reserves. Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania covers an area of 32,900 km²; Lake Victoria with 68,100 km² at the intersection of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania; and Lake Malawi which covers 29,500 km². Its shores are shared by Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. These water reserves are havens for local fauna and flora, and eventually evaporate or run off into the groundwater, thus recharging the water table.
Unlike surface water, groundwater is invisible to the naked eye. A large part of these freshwater reserves is located at a depth of more than 50 metres, particularly in the Saharan areas. They are stored in natural reservoirs called aquifers. According to the AfWA, the African continent has 660,000 km3 of groundwater, an invaluable supply of drinking water for humanity. According to the United Nations (UN), only 4% of Africa’s water reserves are exploited, and the lack of sanitation infrastructure causes losses estimated at some $28.4 billion per year, or nearly 5% of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Read Also – AFRICA: Saving the oceans on land
Finally, there are the seas and oceans. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Seas and oceans provide food, regulate the climate and generate most of the oxygen we breathe. These vast bodies of water are also the foundation of much of the world’s economy, supporting sectors ranging from tourism to fishing to international shipping.
While the environment provides enormous quantities of water, it is also under pressure from both human and climatic causes: pollution from waste and effluents, extreme droughts, floods and flooding, deforestation and wetland destruction.
When waste degrades the quality of water resources
In Africa, marine pollution is reaching alarming proportions. One of the causes of this phenomenon is the uncontrolled disposal of solid waste (such as plastic, household, electronic, organic, medical, faecal sludge, etc.). In Tunisia, for example, plastic pollution led to the suspension of 23 beaches in 2020. This type of waste is also responsible for the destruction of aquatic biodiversity. The other source of water pollution on the continent is wastewater. These effluents from households and industries alter the quality of the water, making it unfit for human consumption and degrading the biodiversity that evolves there.

A beach polluted by waste©Golf_chalermchai/Shutterstock

In Tunisia, Lake Bizerte, located at the northern tip of Tunisia, has been polluted for many years by the steel company El Fouleedh, the Tunisian Company of Refining Industries (Stir) and the company Les Ciments de Bizerte. The Salt Lake, which covers an area of 120 km2, received huge quantities of heavily polluted industrial effluents which gave it a reddish colour. Since 2016, a project to clean up the lake, which connects to the Mediterranean, has been underway and will be completed by 2023.
In central Zambia, the Nchanga copper mine operated by Vedanta and its local subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) spills sulphuric acid and other toxic waste that not only affects rivers but also permeates groundwater. The pollution phenomenon also affects the main sources of income for the population, which are agriculture and fishing. In 2015, more than 2,500 Zambians filed a lawsuit against London-based Vedanta and won their case in 2021. Unfortunately, this compensation only mitigates a problem that will ultimately cause irreparable damage to the environment and people’s health.
There is also the Franco-British oil company Perenco, whose oil flows into the waterways of Étimboué, a peninsula of about 5,700 souls in western Gabon. Perenco extracts 95,000 barrels of oil per day from the area, through antiquated facilities that are causing the leaks. This oil spill has led to the disappearance and desertion of a large part of the fish population.
Cases of pollution such as those mentioned above are legion in Africa. But various initiatives to preserve the various water resources are gradually being put in place, such as the GloLitter Partnerships (GLP) programme, which supports African countries in the fight against ocean pollution by plastic waste. The programme is implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Pollution of a river by industrial waste©Golf_chalermchai/Shutterstock

Other examples include the African Environmental Health and Pollution Management Programme (AEHPMP) recently launched in Ghana to reduce water and soil pollution from mercury and e-waste, and wastewater reuse projects being developed across much of the continent, mainly in North Africa. Treated wastewater is returned to nature, or used for irrigation. In some rare cases, such as in Namibia, the effluent is even recycled into drinking water.
In Africa, the water crisis is also caused by drought. This phenomenon, which has been severely aggravated locally by climate change, is the cause of water stress, which mainly affects arid areas. This rapid decrease in water resources mainly affects agricultural production, the livestock sector and the supply of drinking water.
Strategies to cope with water stress
To improve water supply, governments are turning to alternative solutions. In addition to the reuse of treated wastewater, desalination of brackish water and seawater is a way to cope with water stress caused by climate change. In Egypt, at least 14 seawater desalination plants are expected to be commissioned by 2022. The reverse osmosis plants, which will have an overall capacity of 476,000 m3 per day, are being built in the governorates of Marsa Matrouh, Red Sea, North Sinai, South Sinai, Port Said, Daqahliya, Suez and Alexandria. The new facilities will bring the number of desalination plants in operation in Egypt to 90, with a production capacity of 1.3 million m3 per day.
The Egyptian government expects to have a production capacity of 6.3 million m3 per day by 2050. For the next five years, Cairo wants to build 47 reverse osmosis plants with an investment of 2.8 billion dollars.

A plant dedicated to the desalination of sea water©Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock

In South Africa, Coega Development Corporation (CDC) will build a seawater desalination plant. The facility, to be located in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, will have a capacity of 15,000 m3 per day. In addition to supplying Nelson Mandela Bay with drinking water, the future plant should boost the economy of this city of 1.25 million inhabitants, which is plagued by drought.
In addition to desalination, Morocco is considering the construction of dams as a response to its water stress, which ranges from 1,000 to 1,700 m3 of available fresh water per year per inhabitant. This could improve water storage, although it raises questions of use and does not solve the resource issue.
Read Also – AFRICA: the urgent need to restore degraded ecosystems
However, the programme also foresees the preservation of the resource and the increase of water supply in rural areas. Emergency measures also include the irrigation of 510,000 hectares of plantations. The initiative is expected to benefit 160,000 farmers. Traditional irrigation systems will be renovated and upgraded with drip irrigation, for example, which combines yield efficiency and intelligent resource conservation, but often leads to a rebound effect. The new emergency drought programme in Morocco will run from 2020 to 2027 at a total cost of US$12 billion.
The ultimate goal is to restore water ecosystems that are currently degraded.
Inès Magoum