CPR, Partners Call for Climate Justice Reforms to the Chemical Industry

Darya Minovi

Dec. 9, 2021

The Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) joined Coming Clean and more than 100 organizations calling for major transformations to the chemical industry — a significant yet overlooked contributor to the climate crisis and toxic pollution in communities.

The groups unveiled new guidance this week for regulators, policymakers, advocates, and industry to phase out chemicals and their adverse impacts. The guidance – contained in the Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals – was first developed in 2004 by grassroots, labor, health, and environmental justice groups and updated this year to strengthen recommendations as the climate changes.

The updated charter includes 10 planks, or priority areas, alongside reports highlighting policy solutions to phase out persistent, toxic, and cumulative chemical pollution. CPR contributed to the background report for Plank #1, which calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), policymakers, and businesses to address the chemical and petrochemical industry’s contributions to climate change. The industry currently accounts for roughly 7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions; by 2030, petrochemicals are set to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand.

The background report, The Chemical Industry: An Overlooked Driver of the Climate Crisis, addresses the three primary ways that chemicals and petrochemicals contribute to climate change:

1) Use of fossil fuels for energy production to manufacture chemicals.

2) Use of fossil fuels as feedstock for products such as plastics and pesticides.

3) Production of chemicals that are potent greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Chemicals Bolster Reliance on Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are intrinsically linked to chemicals, from extraction and processing, to waste disposal. Fossil fuel emissions during manufacturing may arise from both the use of energy in chemical manufacturing as well as from venting byproducts, such as carbon dioxide, from chemical processes.

These byproducts can also include toxic pollutants released by chemical and petrochemical manufacturing facilities, which are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color and low-income communities. For example, 90 percent of residents of the predominantly Latino Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood in East Houston live within one mile of a high-risk industrial facility. The cancer risk and respiratory hazard index are 22 percent greater in the community compared to Houston’s urban area overall.

In addition, some chemicals and products, like plastic, require fossil fuel “feedstocks” (raw material inputs, rather than an energy source). Most carbon from fossil fuel feedstocks remains within the products until they are disposed of. This is a significant concern with single-use plastic products: Roughly a quarter of plastic products are incinerated to produce energy, releasing the carbon stored within. In 2015, plastic incineration alone resulted in an additional 6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents — about the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1 million vehicles driven over one year.

Plastic incineration also releases harmful air emissions. The Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Baltimore has been a significant concern for the predominantly Black and low-income community members for over 30 years. Incineration at the plant produces more mercury and lead (two highly toxic compounds) and greenhouse gases per hour of energy than each of the state’s four largest coal-fired power plants.

Finally, some manufactured chemicals may be greenhouse gases themselves. For example, fluorinated gases, which are used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and heat pump equipment, can have a global warming effect up to 23,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. The EPA recently announced plans to phase out production and import of HFCs (the most widely produced fluorinated gas), but these rules do not cover all fluorinated gases.

The Chemours chemical facility in Louisville, Kentucky (the city after which the charter is named) is one of the largest emitters of HFC-23 in the United States. The facility is located in Rubbertown, a highly industrial complex near lower-income communities. Under EPA’s new rule, the facility will be required to use or destroy nearly all of the HFC-23 it produces, but community members remain concerned about continued hazardous air pollution emissions.

Climate Change Will Make Matters Worse

As the industry drives climate change, it will also be impacted by the consequences. Chemical and petrochemical facilities are largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast, which is already experiencing stronger hurricanes, flooding, and sea-level rise from climate change.

A recent report CPR co-authored with Earthjustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that roughly a third of facilities that use, store, and manage highly hazardous chemicals are at risk of being impacted by wildfires, flooding, hurricane storm surge, and/or coastal flooding. This means that the very communities overburdened by cumulative pollution emissions from these facilities will also be most impacted by the climate consequences — and hurt first and worst in the event of chemical disaster. This was the case for residents of the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Recommendations for Reform

Continued use of chemicals and petrochemicals further entrenches global reliance on fossil fuels, and the industry is banking on this to shield itself from the inevitable transition to clean energy. To solve the climate crisis and eliminate environmental and public health harm from the chemical sector, the report recommends that EPA, policymakers, and the industry:

  • Pursue aggressive energy efficiency measures and scale up the use of renewable energy as a process energy source for the chemical industry, ultimately phasing out the use of fossil fuels for energy generation.
  • Eliminate the use of fossil fuels as feedstock for chemical manufacturing and shift toward low-hazard, renewable, and/or recycled materials.
  • Stop the expansion of plastic production.
  • Phase out manufacturing of chemicals that are significant greenhouse gases on their own.
  • Eliminate the disproportionate burden of environmental and public health harm of the petrochemical industry on fenceline communities.

To learn more, read the updated Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals and one of the other accompanying policy reports, Addressing Environmental Injustice Through the Adoption of Cumulative Impacts Policies.

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