Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Deadly fumes threaten communities of color

As a retired chaplain and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, I know a successful Air Force pilot is keenly aware of threats seen and expected, as well as threats unseen and unexpected. When an unseen threat is revealed, the good pilot is ready to confront and eliminate it, because it is a matter of life and death.

It is easy to see oil and gas infrastructure across the American West. It is easy to see benefits of oil and gas revenue — jobs and energy security — particularly when oil and gas companies have enormous budgets to advertise to tell us about such things.

Yet we also need to be aware of threats that are not easily seen.

For instance, there is a threat brewing in the Department of Interior that would harm Nevadans and African-Americans specifically. It is an unseen threat that seems deliberately designed by the Trump administration to be invisible.

It is the threat of unchecked pollution by a colorless, odorless gas called methane. Methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas. There is also the threat of unrealized lost tax revenue going up in flames as a perfectly good energy source gets vented and flared off oil and gas operations.

In 2016, after three years of stakeholder processes and public hearings, the Bureau of Land Management Methane Waste Prevention rule went into effect. This rule protects taxpayers from waste by oil and gas companies that have failed to prioritize necessary and widely available technology upgrades for plugging methane leaks and capturing excess methane from their operations. It protects the resource of publicly owned natural gas, reduces air pollution and curbs dangerously potent greenhouse emissions. It is a common-sense win for the common good.

Yet as part of a radical deregulatory agenda, this administration is trying to suspend and weaken the Methane Waste Prevention Rule.

If this rollback is snuck past our communities, an estimated 175,000 tons of methane and 250,000 more tons of toxic compounds and hazardous air pollutants will poison the air we breathe in the American West.

As a pastor, I think a lot about the meaning of life and death. We are called to choose the abundant life God bestows on us. Yet communities of color bear disproportionate life-threatening burdens of oil and gas industry operations on public lands.

The 2017, the NAACP report “Fumes Across the Fenceline” states that natural gas emissions and summer ozone season combined contribute to black children suffering an estimated 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days annually. In addition, over 1 million African-Americans live in counties that face a cancer risk above the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern from toxins emitted by natural gas facilities.

This is all so oil and gas companies can delay investment in technology upgrades that will ultimately make them, as well as American taxpayers, more revenue. Are you OK with that deal in the name of an anti-regulation ideology?

If you are not, we have little room to voice opposition officially. You see, a full 67 percent of the land in Nevada is managed by the BLM, and most oil and gas leases by the BLM occur in the West. Yet there has not been a single public hearing in Nevada or any other state regarding the rescission of the Methane Waste Prevention Rule. And the administration seems poised to ignore the more than 400,000 public comments recently collected in opposition. Communities of color, and states like Nevada, cannot afford to say nothing while our air is being poisoned. We refuse to be casualties of corrupt government decisions, as Flint, Mich., was.

We must demand that the Department of Interior lengthen the public comment period and host a series of public hearings in Nevada and in communities of color.

And if these hearings do happen, people of color and Nevadans must show up, be ready and voice our concerns against this policy.

Because it is a matter of life and death.

D. Edward Chaney is pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Las Vegas.