Top Oil Industry Group Disputes African-American Health Study, Cites Genetics

The study, led by the NAACP, looked at Black Americans’ exposure to the oil and gas industry and related health risks.

Refinery in Richmond, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
An API blog post that dismissed the study's health conclusions said the focus should be on bringing people out of poverty, not "attacking our industry." Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas trade organization, is dismissing the findings of a study on the risks facing African Americans who live near oil and gas facilities, saying that health disparities may be caused by other factors instead, including “genetics.”

The study by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force found that more than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of oil and gas wells and operations, and another 6.7 million live in counties with refineries. They warned that African Americans face disproportionate exposure to pollution as a result.

“I’ve read an NAACP paper released this week that accuses the natural gas and oil industry of emissions that disproportionately burden African American communities. As a scientist, my overall observation is that the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted, within the African American community,” wrote Uni Blake, a scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs at API, in a blog post Thursday.

“Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations—such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care,” the blog post said.

The two organizations that produced the study defended it.

“Above and beyond other factors, the oil and gas operations in communities causes an extra level of risk,” Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program for NAACP said. “Other people who live in those communities also have those health conditions that result from those exposures. That would discount the role of ‘genetics’.”

“The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among this population and so, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it is even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure,” Lesley Fleischman, a Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author said. 

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy and administration of justice at Texas Southern University who is often referred to as the “father of environmental justice,” said API’s response is “an insult to the intelligence of not just African Americans but the intelligence of the American people who know better.”

“The [API] folks that responded to the study are basically using the same argument [as the tobacco industry] that it’s not the chemicals and the oil and gas, but it’s people whose own behavior somehow drive the health disparities,” Bullard said. “It’s pushing blame off on individuals who live near these facilities and absolving these companies from any kind of responsibility.”

The blog post said the focus should be on bringing people out of poverty, not “attacking our industry.”

“The objective should be to address the underlying socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities, and one of the best vehicles is via the good jobs the natural gas and oil industry support,” the API post said.