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We need a strong federal methane rule to protect Latino communities

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The climate crisis is here, and Latinos (who we’ll refer to as Latine communities) across the country are already experiencing some of the most severe impacts. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering a plan to reduce methane emissions, which is the fastest, easiest and cheapest thing we can do to immediately slow the pace of climate change.

Reducing methane pollution from the oil and gas industry will slow climate change and improve the health of Latine communities across the country. It’s time we put the health and safety of our communities ahead of polluters in the oil and gas industry. The EPA should adopt strong, comprehensive methane safeguards to protect our health and our planet. 

With more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the near term, methane sets the pace for warming we experience today. Extreme heat leaves outdoor workers, particularly the roughly 3 million agricultural workers — 77 percent of whom are Latine — at increased risk of dehydration, heat stroke and other dangerous health outcomes.

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Methane pollution is also released alongside toxic pollution such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and benzene. These pollutants can reportedly worsen asthma, respiratory illnesses and even cause cancer. The 1.6 million Latines living within half a mile of active oil and gas operations across the country are most likely to be affected by these hazardous pollutants. This pollution harms our community members from coast to coast — especially the most vulnerable, like those already living with chronic respiratory illness.

In New York City, the third hottest heat island in the country, methane pollution from the oil and gas sector contributes to the never-ending uptick in heat waves, which is especially dangerous in industrial neighborhoods. As someone with asthma, I (Dharma) sometimes feel my chest tighten up when I’m outside, and I carry around an inhaler — just in case. Millions of Latine children and families across the country — especially those living near oil and gas operations — also face this unacceptable reality. 

Meanwhile, on the other coast, Latine families in Whittier, Calif. are surrounded by the oil and gas industry. Growing up near the Santa Fe oil field, I (Irene) frequently found playdates interrupted by a friend urgently needing an inhaler to reopen their airway. The American Lung Association consistently rates Los Angeles County as having the worst air quality in the country due to its many sources of industrial pollution, including thousands of active oil wells.

Thankfully, last November, the Biden administration issued an updated draft rule to cut methane and other harmful pollutants from oil and gas operations. We must continue to urge EPA to address the climate crisis and safeguard public health by quickly finalizing the strongest possible methane safeguards. 

In January, we proudly represented nearly 600 GreenLatinos members at virtual public hearings held by the EPA. In our testimony we identified critical opportunities for the agency to strengthen the rule. We are counting on the EPA to finalize a rule that limits the wasteful and dangerous practice of routine flaring, better addresses emissions from storage tanks and provides a clear pathway for community members to participate in the Super Emitter Response Program. EPA must keep our families safe by prioritizing accountability and inclusive participation in this Super Emitter Response Program and all its work.

At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is taking steps to cut methane pollution on public lands through proposing a new rule to limit methane waste. While we applaud this action, BLM should further protect resources and taxpayers by eliminating the unnecessary waste of public and Native tribal resources, doing more to hold oil and gas operators accountable, as well as limiting the practice of routine flaring. 

Both federal agencies, EPA and BLM, must hear from people on the frontlines of oil and gas development. Everyone concerned about climate change, health and our economic future should speak up and ask the Biden administration to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas to advance public health and environmental justice. The deadline to submit public comments on the BLM’s proposed methane rule is Jan. 30 and public comments on the EPA’s proposed methane rule are due Feb. 13. Don’t wait to speak up, every voice matters in the fight to protect public health and the planet. 

Dharma Santos-Santiago is a climate justice and clean air advocate for GreenLatinos in New York City.

Irene Burga is the climate justice and clean air program director of GreenLatinos in Whittier, Calif. 

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