April 11, 2020

KENNEDY URGES LEADERSHIP TO PROTECT ENVIRO JUSTICE COMMUNITIES BEFORE BAILING OUT OIL & GAS

Newton, MA – Following reports that air pollution increases the lethality of COVID-19, Congressman Joe Kennedy III today called on Congressional leadership to provide critical funding for environmental justice communities across the country before bailing out corporate oil and gas interests. As it becomes increasingly clear that health inequities and systemic racism make COVID-19 deadlier for communities of color and other frontline areas, Kennedy raised concerns that the Trump Administration has been more focused on keeping fossil fuels afloat rather than protecting vulnerable patients, workers, families, and communities.

“We should not be investing in keeping the fossil fuel industry afloat while vulnerable patients suffer the consequences of unchecked air pollution and environmental injustice. We now know that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a great equalizer, because our nation’s policies have never been truly equal. If and when Congress debates another emergency response package, it should include robust funding for environmental justice communities -- forced to bear the brunt of this crisis already -- and a firm rejection of oil and gas corporate bailouts.”

Kennedy recently introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act with Congressman Raul Grijalva and Congressman Donald McEachin. He also introduced the Voices for Environmental Justice Act in February.  His full letter can be found below.

Dear Speaker Pelosi,

Thank you for your relentless, unwavering support of all Americans during the COVID-19 health and economic crises. I am writing to echo your calls to support workers and families in any further legislative package intended to relieve Americans from mounting financial and health burdens. This Administration continues to pursue efforts that will endanger the health of frontline communities, including by announcing its intent to waive and outright ignore violations of environmental laws that keep our air and water clean. Coupled with discussions amounting to a potential bailout of the oil and gas industry, the House must stand strong and reject any proposals that would compromise the health and safety of American families. Not only do I urge you to oppose any efforts to bail out the corporate oil and gas interests, I ask that any further COVID-19 emergency funding package include robust funding for environmental justice grants that will undo the harm this Administration has already wrought on frontline communities.

While the COVID-19 pandemic does not recognize race, religion, geographic region, or income level, the federal government’s response efforts do. Persistent inequities throughout our society have left minority communities more at risk in this pandemic. Housing segregation and a resulting reliance on public transportation, criminal justice disparities, a broken immigration system, underfunded community development, and many other side effects of generational, societal racism underscore the devastating numbers of minority communities susceptible to the outbreak, unable to receive the adequate treatment they need, and alarmingly disparate mortality rates.

A recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health preliminarily found that air pollution makes the exposure to COVID-19 more deadly. For decades, the burdens of our failed climate, environmental, and energy policies have fallen to frontline communities. Across the United States, minority, indigenous, and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to hazardous chemicals, toxic substances, and environmental harms. As a result, these communities suffer consequences ranging from extreme heat zones, higher levels of air and water pollution, and increased risk of asthma and heart disease.

Now, under the guise of a health and economic crises, the Trump Administration is pursuing a corporate-friendly strategy that will only serve to exacerbate the health consequences frontline communities face. This week, the Department of the Interior (DOI) agreed to an expedited process to waive royalty payments that oil companies are required to pay to the federal government. Last year alone, these payments brought $7 billion worth of revenue to federal and state governments. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DOI announced in March that they would waive the enforcement of certain environmental laws, including not enforcing civil penalties for a company’s failure to self-monitor its own pollution. The purpose of this policy is to apparently allow such companies to continue operation while allowing the companies to take precautions to limit employee exposure to COVID-19. If these companies are taking precautions to protect their workers from the spread of COVID-19, shouldn’t the federal government ensure that the communities susceptible to pollution that exacerbates their health also be protected? It makes no sense whatsoever to waive environmental regulations at any point, let alone during a health crisis. Doing so merely substitutes one health crisis for another.

Additionally, recent reports appear to show increased efforts to bail out the fossil fuel industry. On April 7, a group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would provide the Department of Energy (DOE) $3 billion to purchase and store oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Over the weekend, President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on foreign oil, a move supported by Harold Hamm, one of the president’s biggest benefactors and owner of a large oil and gas fracking operation. Last week, DOE reversed course on a plan to unilaterally purchase domestic oil and is instead planning to make nearly 60 million barrels worth of space in the SPR available for rent. In March, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he would recommend the president ask Congress for as much as $20 billion to assist the oil industry.

We already know that communities of color across Massachusetts and the country are disproportionately hit by this pandemic. In addition to the societal inequities, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be un- or underinsured, and thus more concerned about the cost of health care which leads them to forgo treatment. Racial bias in medicine is inescapable, expansive, and is persisting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Propping up industry that places additional health burdens on these communities is unconscionable. For decades, the oil and gas industry has benefited from the American economy’s dependence on fossil fuels. Particularly in the last three years under this Administration’s policies, the industry has reaped untold benefits. Just last week, the Department of Transportation and EPA effectively rolled back fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles. Earlier this year, the Council on Environmental Quality rolled back the seminal National Environmental Policy Act making it easier to approve oil and gas projects. The 2017 Republican tax law provided a windfall to the oil and gas industry not only by corporate tax cuts, but by opening a huge swath of federal lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for exploration and leasing.

Further, the current challenges facing this industry are not solely related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Americans are driving less due to stay-at-home orders, Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are pushing prices downward by oversupplying the market. The domestic oil and gas industry is now facing significant pressure because it has overextended itself while low prices are leaving insufficient incoming revenue. As the industry has moved and lobbied aggressively to increase domestic production, despite changing consumer demands and the reality of climate change transitioning to a greener economy, this economic disruption should not serve as a bridge to a bailout for an industry that has chosen this strategy and gained the benefits of it for decades. The federal government should not bailout the industry either through cash payments, providing temporary storage facilities, or by restricting the flow of oil and gas coming from abroad which would raise prices for American consumers. For an industry that prides independence and exercising market forces including the lack of government intervention when times are good, the same philosophy should apply now. 

The dual economic and health crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented. But there is no excuse for placing yet additional burdens and risks on frontline communities. The well-being of corporations is not a justification to risk the health and safety of already at-risk communities. Further, the financial strains caused by this crisis is being felt most acutely by workers and their families living paycheck to paycheck. Corporate interests, who have reaped the benefits of this Administration’s deregulatory agenda and tax windfall do not need the lifeline of government assistance. Rather than spending precious federal resources on corporations, we should extend and expand efforts to assist frontline communities. We also must continue to focus on helping displaced workers related to COVID-19 including those in this industry, in addition to fortifying the protections and assistance to frontline communities. 

I appreciate your attention to this request and stand ready to work with you to support American workers and families through these challenging times.

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For Immediate Release:
April 11, 2020

Contact:
Dan Black (202) 225-5931