Any Reform of Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Must Include Environmental Justice – About Your Online Magazine


After four years of an agenda that favored polluters, a new day dawns at the Ministry of Interior. In March, communities across the country rejoiced in Secretary Deb Haaland’s historic confirmation of leading the country’s largest and most powerful land management agency. Now, she is seizing the opportunity to pursue real reforms to the broken oil and gas leasing system that has long prioritized fossil fuel CEOs. The possibilities for a cleaner and fairer future are before us.

It won’t be easy, but it’s possible. The Biden administration has already turned its attention to the failed federal oil and gas leasing program, halting all new leases of public land. While this pause is in effect, I urge Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior to undertake an environmental justice review of the leasing program to address racial discrimination in oil and gas operations.

This review is an important first step in recognizing injustices in the system, listening to the people who are impacted by them, and hearing their ideas for reform. As executive director of 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 more than 100 polluting facilities that release a deadly cocktail of poison every day . Over my nearly 30 years in this work, I have witnessed how the oil and gas industry has taken over 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, schools and recreation centers, threatening our access to clean air and water and damaging our health. But all too often, the communities hardest hit by these dangers are ignored and left out of the conversation. We deserve better, and this lease break is an opportunity to give Secretary Haaland a chance to hear us out and focus fairness and equity on oil and gas program reforms.

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

Unfortunately, air pollution isn’t the only concern. In coastal communities, red lines, oil spills and offshore drilling increase racial inequality. After the BP oil drilling disaster, large amounts of oil waste were dumped in landfills near Black communities, jeopardizing our water supply. And as offshore drilling continues, our coastlines are deteriorating, leaving many areas without natural defenses for extreme weather events. To make matters worse, greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry contribute enormously 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 equitable energy solutions that create new, well-paying jobs, keep the air and water clean, and the climate safe – but we need the support of the federal government. The existential threat of climate change and the worrying health disparities in black communities are among the glaring impacts of reckless oil and gas development.

President Biden has made it clear that reforming the leasing system is one of his administration’s top priorities. Now, with the lease break presenting an opportunity to complete a comprehensive review, it is imperative that the government and Secretary Haaland join forces with us to prioritize an environmentally and economically just transition from fossil fuel development. We count on it.

This is an opinion and analysis article.

Paula Fonseca