Fossil Fuel Extraction Endangers Women’s Health and Safety. Who Is Accountable?
By Osprey Orielle Lake & Livia Charles | June 23, 2021
“They promised us jobs. Instead they pollute us with these plants, like we’re not human beings, like we’re not even people. They’re killing us. And that is why I am fighting.” — Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James in St. James Parish, Louisiana
In April 2021, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) released a report spotlighting the intersections of gender, race, the fossil fuel industry and complicit financial institutions.
The report, Gendered and Racial Impacts of the Fossil Fuel Industry in North America and Complicit Financial Institutions: A Call to Action for the Health of Our Communities and Nature in the Climate Crisis addresses the disproportionate gender and race specific health and safety impacts as well as human and Indigenous rights issues of fossil fuel activity in the United States and selected parts of Canada. These interlocking issues have been sorely neglected in the discourse regarding fossil fuel extraction.
A growing body of scientific research and women’s first-hand accounts document a myriad of links between the fossil fuels and threats to the health and safety of African American/Black/African Diaspora, Indigenous, Latina/Chicana and low-income women. These effects include environmental racism, breaches to Indigenous rights, pollution, heat islands, fertility issues, “man camps” and mental health impacts, as well as the unequal caretaking role that women play across the United States, Canada and globally.
Confronting the climate crisis must involve an interlocking race and gender perspective; this involves securing rights-based policies and programs that address environmental racism.
Extractive Industries Endanger Women’s Health
Women experience disproportionate health impacts from fossil fuel derived air, water and soil pollution. For example, air pollution and water contamination have been linked to breast cancer, ovarian diseases and maternal health risks. Proximity to fracking has been associated with adverse birth outcomes, including premature births, decreased birth weights, birth defects and high-risk pregnancies.
Rosanna Esparza, a Community Organizer and Environmental Researcher in the heavily fracked region of Kern County, CA, expressed her concern for the young Latinas and their future children in this region: “We know about the exposure to toxicity from the proprietary lens of fracking. We know that there are cancer causing substances. When we’ve done our testing and our gram samples of the air as well as the soil samples we’ve seen the number of chemicals that can cause sterility, something like spina bifida, or any of these other challenges and birth defects. And we see it later in the birth of these children.”
Shamyra Lavigne, a member of RISE St. James, denounces the breaches to intrinsic human rights resulting from fossil fuel activity in her community. St. James Parish sits in the center of “Cancer Alley,” a region in Louisiana where about 150 fossil fuel plants and refineries operate. RISE St. James is an environmental and racial justice advocacy organization fighting to stop toxic pollution in their communities. They are currently organizing to stop Formosa’s Sunshine Project, a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant estimated to emit approximately 13 million tons of carbon dioxide per year and ethylene oxide levels 246 times above levels designated by the EPA to be cancer-causing. The EPA indicates that high levels of ethylene oxide exposure could lead to increased rates of miscarriages in female workers.
Fossil Fuel Projects Undermine Women’s Safety and Human Rights
The report also details the links between “man camps,” temporary housing sites set up for construction workers along pipeline routes, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People epidemic. Joye Braun (Cheyenne River Sioux), an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and Leader of the Wakpa Was’te Camp, describes this trauma: “The truth is written in the blood and tears of our sisters that tar sands and the subsequent pipelines are nothing more than death knocking at our children’s future. As Indigenous women we know the fear of looking into our daughters’ eyes hoping and praying they won’t go missing or murdered. These industries bring that fear to our doorstep. They bring death to our cultures and our children.”
Complicit Institutions Must Change
The report identifies Vanguard, BlackRock, Capital Group, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of America and Liberty Mutual as the leading financial institutions backing the worst companies in terms of pollution emissions, industry accidents (e.g. oil spills), current expansion of fossil fuel related projects/permits and overall detrimental harm to local communities. These financiers are complicit in preserving and perpetuating negative gender and racial impacts due to financing, insuring and investing in fossil fuel companies.
All seven of these financial institutions have voiced support of the Paris Climate Agreement and human rights; yet they continue to provide financing to companies whose operations disproportionately harm women and communities of color, while also violating Indigenous rights and furthering the climate crisis. We call for these financial institutions to immediately divest to stop further harms.
“The world and our nations must work together to capture and make financial systems accountable. We must make our financial institutions serve the people to protect our planet’s resources for our collective future and well-being.” – Michelle Cook (Diné/Navajo), Human Rights Lawyer and Founder of Divest Invest Protect
Centering Women’s Wisdom in Future Policy
It is essential that these injustices against women of color and Indigenous women are addressed through all societal structures, including action from governmental bodies and financial institutions.
As the climate crisis accelerates, financial institutions who continue to support fossil fuel companies must act and adopt bolder policies and robust implementation standards on climate and human rights issues. In order to align with the Paris Agreement and their own internal commitments regarding climate change and international human rights laws, financial institutions must conduct an immediate managed decline from financing, insuring and investing in the fossil fuel industry, and instead, focus on a rapid investment in a Just Transition to a decentralized, clean energy future that supports communities, human and Indigenous rights, and workers who have been dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
Policy in the U.S and Canada must support this effort by imposing stricter regulations on fossil fuel companies in terms of emissions, preventing fossil fuel companies from building near residential areas, prohibiting fossil fuel expansion and investing more in clean energy infrastructure. The Feminist Agenda for the Green New Deal outlines principles that address these systemic injustices, including revaluing care work and requiring paid family leave and free child care.
Additionally, Indigenous Peoples’ vast body of traditional ecological knowledge and land caring approaches must be a foundation for adaptation and mitigation strategies. Indigenous leaders must be at the forefront of decision-making efforts regarding the climate crisis, including having their rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent respected as stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Biden Administration must denounce the human rights abuses that are occurring in these communities and immediately halt fossil fuel expansion projects (such as Enbridge’s Line 3 and Formosa’s plastics plant), which will continue the injustices against women of color and Indigenous women, and further pollute the entire world.
Perry Sheffield MD, MPH explains why we need further research and analysis connecting the dots between women’s health and the fossil fuel industry: “This report tells the story that is hard but imperative that we hear about how despite knowing that many of our energy choices and financing are costing us thousands of lives and far greater chronic health burden, we have persisted to condone this system. It’s time to write a different story that will instead promote health, centering women and children and as a side effect benefit everyone.”
For decades, frontline women have been leading efforts to stop extractive industries. Policies and solutions must center frontline women’s wisdom and women-led organizations currently fighting to protect their communities worldwide.
Osprey Orielle Lake is the executive director and Livia Charles is a researcher at the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), International.