Frances Dingivan: Why energy policy is also health policy

(Photo Courtesy Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) The oil and gas industry has asked the BLM to sell oil and gas leases on at least 100,000 acres of scenic public land near Canyonlands and Arches national parks, including parts of Hatch Canyon.

While COVID-19 has transformed the world as we know it, Donald Trump is proceeding with business as usual.

Trump is moving forward with plans to lease additional public lands to fossil fuel companies, including sites near Bears Ears National Monument, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park that add up to more than 150,000 acres of land.

Trump’s decision to open public lands to oil, coal and gas extraction signals that he is willing to sacrifice Americans’ health and economic well-being so long as it benefits fossil fuel companies.

This isn’t news. Trump has sought to expand American mineral extraction and fossil fuel production (he calls it “unleashing energy dominance”) since he arrived in office. He has already reversed 60 environmental rules and regulations.

What is especially alarming, however, is that the administration seems entirely oblivious, or just unconcerned, about how these policies could exacerbate the pandemic and further undermine public health.

COVID-19 aside, hundreds of thousands of American’s suffer from illnesses related to fossil fuels each year. Asthma, heart attacks, strokes, various respiratory diseases and early death are all linked to fossil fuel production and combustion. Air pollution from burning coal, oil and natural gas accounts for roughly 230,000 deaths and $600 billion in economic losses each year.

COVID-19 will undoubtedly drive those numbers higher. A Harvard study released in early April revealed that an increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter of even one microgram per cubic meter of air increases the odds of dying from COVID-19 by 8%. For reference, one microgram of fine particulate matter is one millionth the weight of a thumb tack.

Poorer areas and communities of color will be (and already have been) hit the hardest, as they are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than affluent, white neighborhoods.

Not only is our health at risk, but so is our economic well-being. While the more than 20 million Americans who have applied for unemployment benefits struggle to afford health care, the CARES Act allows fossil fuel companies to defer paying Social Security and Medicare taxes. Not only this, but the federal government has given U.S. fossil fuel companies $50 million in taxpayer money as part of a coronavirus aid package, half of which will go to three mining companies with ties to Trump officials. Federal aid recipients aren’t even required to prove that the losses they’re being compensated for are a result of the coronavirus — and many coal companies were already experiencing losses before the pandemic.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about public lands. It’s about a dying industry that is squeezing the air out of our lungs to stay afloat. If the Trump administration is committed to responding to the current crisis, it would see that its energy policy and the health of millions of Americans are intertwined.

Frances Dingivan

Frances Dingivan, Salt Lake City, is a graduating senior from Wellesley College in Boston, Mass.