'Energy Apartheid': Who’s bearing the brunt of U.S. oil refining?

ExxonMobil Refinery, Baton Rouge
ExxonMobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Creative Commons)

On the bank of the Mississippi River, one of the world’s largest oil refineries looms over the Louisiana State Capitol.

ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery can process more than half a million barrels of oil per day. Its labyrinthine system of pipes and stacks lurch toxic emissions — chemicals like nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and benzene — and mark an imposing entrance to an 85-mile corridor that has become known as “Cancer Alley.”

Brunetta Sims, who lives near the refinery, told MSNBC in 2015 that many of her neighbors, friends, and family members have died from cancer and lung disease.

“They’re all gone now,” Sims said then. “Nobody here but me.”

Cities and towns along Cancer Alley, and communities near some of the country’s other major refineries, have often been cited as one-off examples of poor communities of color bearing the brunt of U.S. oil refining.

But an analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency reveals that the trend is widespread — especially among those refineries that pollute the most.

In the past decade, U.S. production of renewable energy has boomed. In 2016, for the first time ever, wind and solar combined accounted for more than 10 percent of the country’s electricity.

Yet, as the country makes a slow turn toward cleaner energy, those low income communities of color still disproportionately breath dirty air in the shadows of U.S. refineries.

“People are talking about this economic recovery and the rebirth of clean energy and renewable energy, but what we have is energy apartheid, where poor communities and poor communities of color are still getting the dirtiest of the dirty energy,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University.

The below charts illustrate the makeup of the communities in a three-mile radius of the 15 most-emitting refineries, and show that more poor people and minorities live near those refineries than the state average.

Seen here, all but three of the 15 dirtiest refineries are located in areas where significantly more people live in poverty than the state average.

Take the three miles around ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery, for example. There, more than 60 percent of residents live in poverty — more than triple the state average.

This trend is repeated in states as diverse as New Jersey, Mississippi, and Texas.

The same chart measuring minority populations is less dramatic but still shows a majority of the highest-emitting refineries are located in communities more diverse than the state as a whole.

Again, near ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery, the site of nearly 2 million pounds of annual toxic emissions, about 90 percent of residents are minorities. This is more than double the state population.

While there are a number of refineries located near communities with a far smaller minority population than their state’s, this chart still shows that nine of the 15 dirtiest refineries are located in more diverse places.

But it’s not just the highest emitters that are located predominantly in low income communities of color — big or small, most of U.S. oil refineries are located in places where there is a higher presence of poor people and minorities.

The three charts below, each circle represents an oil refinery and how the communities surrounding it compare to the state.

Here, the relationship between poverty and refinery location is striking. Just 10 refineries are located in areas that aren’t poorer than their state average, and many are located near communities with more than three times the state average of people in poverty.

Again, this chart is less dramatic than the one that measures poverty, but it does show that more than half of refineries — 55 percent of them — are located near communities more diverse than their state.

This last chart details the relationship between refinery location and the population of African Americans. A recent study by the Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP found that, nationwide, 6.7 million African Americans live in counties with refineries.

This chart shows that just under 50 percent of U.S. refineries are located in areas with a greater black population than the state as a whole. There are many refineries located in areas with four, five, six, and seven times the black population share, compared to statewide demographics. One Texas refinery is located in a community with 7.7 times the black population share statewide.

Marcus Franklin, co-author of the NAACP-sponsored report, told InsideClimate News in November: “It is time to shape an energy future that is not exploitative and does not profit from acts of environmental racism.”