From the Nile to the Mississippi, petrochemicals are the next big climate fight around the world​​​​​​​

Commentary by Dr. Beverly Wright – December 2, 2022
Recently I returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties, known as COP27, in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, where I joined global leaders, advocates and NGOs who are charting the global path forward on climate. As I met with people from around the world to highlight the importance of environmental justice on a global scale, my thoughts never left the climate fights back at home.

Born and raised in New Orleans, I have witnessed the polluting effects of Cancer Alley – an 85-mile stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries. For decades, since the 1950s, it’s been part of our landscape and our shared reality and the effects have been devastating – from corrosive air, and dead birds, to sick relatives and neighbors.

Attending COP27 reminded me that if we are going to meet the goals outlined by the Paris agreement and chart a sustainable future for all communities, we need to take action locally. World leaders can work together to raise global climate ambition, but petrochemical hubs in local communities such as Louisiana are where the fight starts.

Today, petrochemical expansion continues to be rubber-stamped in Louisiana, and many of these companies are making plans for a massive buildout of new and existing plants in Louisiana, Texas and Ohio. By 2050, petrochemical applications will account for nearly half of the growth in oil demand. If unchecked, this rapid expansion of petrochemical production will be devastating to climate progress and public health.

Today, petrochemicals account for 10% of global emissions, which will increase by 20% by 2030 as production increases, making it nearly impossible for the U.S. to meet its Paris Agreement climate goals.

This would also be devastating to Black, brown and poor communities living near petrochemical facilities in Louisiana.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently made headlines after reporting the harmful effects of the Mississippi River chemical corridor on Black and brown communities. The EPA found an increased risk of cancer when you live near a chemical plant. Eighty-percent of Black people in Louisiana live within 3 miles of a petrochemical facility.

Even more concerning, negligence from Louisiana state officials allowed air pollution to remain high leading to decades of filthy air and water and high rates of cancer amongst its residents, nearly all of whom are Black.

Earlier this year, Shell admitted to moving high-emitting facilities to regions such as Louisiana with poor environmental regulations. The well-being of these communities continues to be neglected due to a history of policies rooted in systemic racism and an unwillingness from policymakers to stand up to the industry.

It is critical for climate and environmental justice advocates to stand united in pushing for policies that cut carbon emissions and address the historical and ongoing legacy of pollution in our most vulnerable communities.

That’s why we have joined forces with other local groups as part of the Beyond Petrochemicals Campaign, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ $85 million effort to stop the expansion of more than 120 petrochemical plants in Louisiana, Texas and the Ohio River Valley. This partnership is working to foster a prosperous future full of climate progress. Now more than ever we need legislation to prioritize the safety of our people, our planet, and our future.

As the environmental justice movement has grown, fence line communities, such as the ones in Louisiana, have become more active in using our voice to speak out about the impact these plants have in our communities. With the help of community partners, we can ramp up efforts to organize and end petrochemical pollution and build a cleaner, safer and more prosperous future.

We have the historical evidence of wrongdoing by the petrochemical industry, the data showing how harmful their operations are to our health, and now there are resources to do something about it. It is time to break the cycle of continuing to put dirty, nasty, polluting facilities in our neighborhoods.

We need solution-based policies that address climate change and environmental justice from a racial equity lens. It’s time to transition to an equitable and renewable energy economy, including workforce training for the clean energy jobs of the future. Some effects of climate change cannot be reversed, but we have a responsibility to take actions now that will improve the quality of living for those who are disproportionately affected.