Oil Spill Puts People of Color on Slippery Slope

For twelve days, approximately 2,520,000 gallons of oil have gushed from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the explosion and fire that capsized an oil rig under contract to the British Petroleum Oil Corporation (BP). No effective safety preparations were in place to prevent the massive oil slick now heading towards the coastal areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico – from Texas to Florida. Governmental agencies, BP, and coastal communities are scrambling to find an effective Plan B because Plan A wrongly assumed that BP’s blow-out preventer device would work to stop the oil in the event of an accident.

We are bracing ourselves for an indefinite period of cleaning up oil muck that will cover marshes and beaches, ensuring fair and immediate compensation to fishing and shrimping businesses, and restoring the mostly poor and mostly people of color communities along the coast, who have yet to recover from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Gustav, and Ike, and are on the front line of another hurricane season that begins June 1st. In the midst of this disaster, there is a growing realization that what really needs to be clean up is our flawed national energy policy.

The BP oil drilling disaster demonstrates that the need for clean up extends beyond the immediate damage to the coastal region. We need to clean up the federal policy that prioritizes fossil fuel production over our right to live in a healthy environment. This policy welcomes BP and other companies to search for oil at increasing depths without effective safety measures. The inherent dangers of the nation’s energy policy are evident in the ghost towns of Louisiana that were once historic, African American communities before petrochemical facilities took root; as well as the massive erosion of Native American ancestral coastal land (about the size of the State of Delaware), due in large part to oil companies cutting channels and installing networks of oil and gas pipelines.

In other parts of the country, there is no legal prohibition against removing the tops of mountains to mine for coal or extracting tar sands to produce oil. And throughout the country, our government routinely issues environmental permits to oil companies and their petrochemical industry partners that allow them to refine and manufacture hazardous materials without regard for their dangerously close proximity to homes, playgrounds, and places of worship in mostly people of color communities.

While it is a fact that people of color disproportionately pay the price for runaway oil slicks, coastal land loss, and the significant health problems associated with exposure to massive amounts of toxic pollution, these are not the only costs. Added to these negative consequences of fossil fuel production are greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, the effects of which are sea level rise and extreme weather events, such as intensive hurricanes. People of color in the U.S. and around the world have the most to lose with climate change.

President Obama’s recent call for more offshore oil drilling appeared to be a go-along-to-get-along message that plays to the politics of Washington, DC. However, his directive continues the pattern of formulating energy policies in disregard of the people who are likely to bear the burdens of such policies. I wonder if the President now sees things differently. Clearly, the BP oil slick moving on choppy waters in the Gulf of Mexico would not have occurred if our government prohibited offshore oil exploration and drilling without effective safety measures. If our government gave more than lip service to renewable energy production and sustainable use of natural resources, the need for BP’s oil drilling would be largely nonexistent. If our government recognized that human rights are interdependent on a healthy environment, coastal communities would be busy with fishing and shrimping instead of being trained on how to clean up BP’s oil slick.

President Obama’s visit to New Orleans and coastal communities on yesterday was an opportunity to see the fear and anger of people whose hard work to provide for their families and struggle to recover from recent devastating storms would be erased by BP’s oil drilling disaster. I hope that the visit provided President Obama with the insight and courage to correct the deep systemic flaws and racial disparities in the nation’s energy policy. By the end of this year, we will find out whether he has gained the insight and courage necessary to conduct a national clean up of energy production and consumption.

In November, the Obama administration will be preparing for the first time a national report regarding governmental compliance with human rights standards that will be reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council. Will this report truthfully acknowledge the ways that our energy policy undermines human rights protections for people of color and the poor? Also in November, President Obama is expected to meet with world leaders in Cancun, Mexico in a follow-up session to negotiate a climate change treaty. Will the president agree to bring down levels of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel production in the United States, and support the adaptation of communities vulnerable to climate change? If not, how many more presidential visits to communities facing catastrophic disasters will it take to clean up our national energy policy?

* Monique Harden is the co-director & attorney of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights a public interest law firm based in New Orleans, LA that is dedicated to upholding our human right to live in a healthy environment.