Last week, shrimper, activist and author Diane Wilson began an indefinite hunger strike at the waterfront of Lavaca Bay, Texas, on the US Gulf Coast. Her strike, beginning at the site of a sprawling Superfund site known to pollute the region, is in protest of a proposed fossil fuel export project that would devastate nearby communities with toxic contaminants.  

Meanwhile, President Biden’s much-anticipated Earth Day climate summit approaches next week, meant to signal US leadership in tackling the climate emergency with the transformative and equitable action this moment requires. But the US simply has no credibility as a global climate leader if we are shipping climate-wrecking fossil fuels overseas. To show true climate leadership, Biden must act to ban fossil fuel exports and protect communities from associated environmental injustices.

Fossil fuel exports harm our communities and drive climate crisis—all for corporate profit

American fossil fuel companies are facing a problem: a glut of cheap, fracked oil and gas that they are extracting from the Earth faster than they know what to do with. Their solution is to ship it abroad to new markets, rack up the profits, and bolster their bottom line. To do so, the industry aims to build out the infrastructure that will enable them to export even more of their climate-wrecking products—no matter the social and climate costs.  

Just this past March, US gas exports hit new record highs, following record highs each year since 2016. Oil exports have seen a similar boom in recent year, growing by more than 750% since a crude oil export ban was lifted by Congress in 2015 according to analysis by Greenpeace USA and Oil Change International.

The US is on track to be a global leader in the export of fossil fuels, especially of fossil gas, despite how destructive its export is to our communities and the climate throughout its lifecycle.

It begins with drilling for fracked gas, particularly from the vast shale deposits of the Permian Basin stretching across western Texas & southeast New Mexico. If allowed to grow, production from the Permian will unleash a devastating amount of greenhouse gas emissions while jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of nearby residents. Community leaders, Indigenous people, and people of color are leading the fight against these polluting projects. Just last month a fracked gas export project  in Brownsville, Texas was scrapped following six years of resistance from Rio Grande Valley communities including the Sierra Club Gulf Coast Campaign and the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.  

Fossil gas exports also require hazardous transportation from fracking sites to ports, often by way of destructive pipelines that can be subject to explosions and leaks. The fossil gas then winds up at export facilities which are being rapidly built out to grow capacity, despite the hazards they pose to nearby communities. The site at the heart of Diane Wilson’s hunger strike is part of a Gulf Coast-wide race to build new oil and gas export facilities across the region. The Lavaca Bay project includes the dredging of Matagorda Ship Channel, which would unearth potentially devastating mercury contamination into the bay where local communities are working to revitalize fisheries.

Every step of the way, fossil fuels hurt our communities—and pose disproportionate harms to communities of color while propping up systemic racism. In fact, pollution from natural gas infrastructure has increased the risk of cancer for 1 million Black Americans, and contributed to 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days for Black children, according to a 2017 NAACP / Clean Air Taskforce report.

The planned gas expansion from the US is a “climate bomb” the world can hardly afford

Once exported, fossil gas is burned, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and adding to the global heating that contributes to climate catastrophes around the world. In addition, fossil gas leaks methane at almost every step of the supply chain. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term and has also driven more than a quarter of global warming to date.

The US is on track to open the floodgates to supply fossil gas to regions around the world – including the European Union which, despite its pledges to take the climate crisis seriously, remains one of the world’s largest importers of American fossil gas.

Amid all this destruction, fossil fuel exports open the door to a massive expansion of fossil gas that is just not compatible with Paris climate goals. The US is on track to be responsible for more than half of all new gas production in the world over the next decade and become the second largest exporter in the world. In reality, there is no pathway to halting the climate crisis without curbing the use of gas—despite how the industry tries to spin it.

Achieving Paris Agreement goals to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius requires gas production and consumption to drop by 40 percent worldwide over the next decade. That is simply not compatible with the plans to export US fossil fuels to Europe and Asia. 

Real leadership must take on industry efforts to ship fossil fuels abroad and end the myth that fossil gas is climate-friendly

For President Biden to truly be a climate leader, he must recognize how fossil gas harms our communities and drives the climate crisis. That means ending support for climate-wrecking fossil fuel exports and tackling associated environmental injustices.

We are encouraged by the US government decisionmakers’ recent efforts to be more attentive to public concerns, in particular from the most affected environmental justice communities. But Biden must go further. He has the authority to reinstate a ban on crude oil exports under a national emergency declaration and should halt fossil gas exports to the extent possible under existing law. So far, the administration’s stance appears conflicted: Climate envoy John Kerry acknowledged earlier this year that fossil gas is not the way forward, yet made comments just this month referring to gas as a bridge fuel.

Ahead of Biden’s Summit and as COP26 approaches later this year, Global Witness is calling on global leaders to finally confront the predatory economic model that is destroying the planet and take the bold political decisions needed to build a better, more sustainable future for generations to come. With the Build Back Fossil Free coalition, we are calling on world leaders at the Earth Day Climate Summit to deliver on climate justice, stop funding the climate catastrophe with massive handouts to polluters, and get serious about investing in an equitable clean energy transition.

And to President Biden, we demand transformative climate leadership—which must start with an end to the US’ role in shipping climate-wrecking fossil fuels to the rest of the world. 

Listing image credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
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