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New Drilling and Fracking in California Will Hurt Latino Communities

Insights + Opinion
New Drilling and Fracking in California Will Hurt Latino Communities
Oil and gas development on BLM lands around Bakersfield, CA. John Ciccarelli, BLM

By Carla Ruas

Elizabeth Perez was only 10 years old when she moved with her family to the city of Bakersfield, in California. Almost immediately, she says, she began experiencing nosebleeds, headaches and difficulty breathing. Perez was in and out of a local health clinic for years, but doctors couldn't quite pinpoint what was making her sick.


Today, at age 24, she has a strong suspicion about the culprit. "I've seen a lot of people with the same symptoms in low-income communities located near oil and gas developments. And I think it's pretty clear we're being affected by heavy pollution," she said.

Perez's childhood memories have been coming back as she watches new pollution threats creep closer to Bakersfield. These come in the form of plans by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that would open well over a million acres of public lands in California to oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

The move has raised red flags among community members and environmentalists in the state's Central Valley region, which stretches north from around Bakersfield hundreds of miles through the Sacramento Valley. The area is already home to some of the nation's largest producing oil fields and a growing number of natural gas wells.

Elizabeth Perez experienced nosebleeds, headaches and difficulty breathing when she moved to Bakersfield, California.

Pollution Looms Over Bakersfield, Broader Central Valley

Central Valley residents know all too well the consequences of having fossil fuel extraction in their backyards. A combination of industrial agriculture and fossil fuel drilling has given the area at least two unwanted titles: the most polluted air in the country, with the cities of Fresno, Madera, Hanford and Bakersfield topping recent rankings of particle pollution compiled by the American Lung Association, and some of the most contaminated drinking water.

Further oil and gas development is likely to make conditions even worse.

The BLM's recent actions would end a five-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing in California that was instituted because the agency did not fully examine the environmental consequences of "fracking." The highly controversial extraction method involves injecting a mixture of water and chemicals into deep underground rock formations to release oil and gas. The technology not only intensifies fossil fuel extraction but also emits an array of toxic pollutants harmful to humans and the environment.

Bakersfield, which suffers from air pollution, is a town where 50% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

David Siebold / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

To measure the effects pollution is already having in and around Bakersfield, CCEJN worked with community members to collect air samples in neighborhoods where over 80% of residents identified as Hispanic or Latino.

In an initial report, they found several chemicals, including some linked to cancer and weakened immune systems.

"The levels of benzene were particularly above average," Martinez said. "There's really no safe level of this gas, but people are breathing it here daily and for several years."

As someone who likes to spend time outdoors, Perez says she is concerned about what new oil and gas sites could mean for her community. Areas like Hart Memorial Park, northeast of Bakersfield, where families go hiking, fishing and picnicking, could become too toxic for recreation. "Some parks are right next to oil fields which is not a scenic sight. And it's hard to think of kids breathing pollution when they are supposed to be enjoying nature," she said.

More drilling in California also poses a major threat of increased pollution in beloved wild lands like Sequoia National Park, the Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Los Padres National Forest.

A Matter of Environmental Justice

After her teenage years, Perez graduated from the University of California, Bakersfield, majoring in Environmental Management. She still lives in Bakersfield, where she works as a ranger at a nature preserve and as a community organizer for Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN).

As part of her job, she educates low-income Latino communities about the environmental and health impacts of oil and gas operations — including her old neighborhood.

Bakersfield is a textbook example of how people of color disproportionately shoulder the burden of fossil fuel development. A recent study found that black and Hispanic Americans tend to live in communities that are exposed to more pollution, despite contributing far less than white Americans to the consumer spending that drives that activity.

What's more, energy and other highly polluting development is often sited within diverse, low income, working class or rural communities. A disparity often pointed out by environmental justice advocates.

"These communities have a large percentage of immigrants from Latin American countries, and a low-socioeconomic status," according to Nayamin Martinez, CCEJN's Director.

"That means they have less opportunities to be proactive and oppose this type of development compared to more affluent neighborhoods," she said.

The Central Valley region is already home to some of the nation's largest producing oil fields.

John Ciccarelli, BLM

Community Fights Drilling Plans

As the BLM plans move forward, community members and environmental groups are speaking up.

In 2015, regional environmental groups took the BLM to court for not explicitly addressing how the planned fracking could impact human health and the environment. A judge agreed and ordered the agency to take a closer look. As part of that process, last year the BLM received more than 8,000 public comments outlining potential threats — including air and water quality.

The resulting report predicted an increase in toxic pollution from new fracking wells. Shockingly, it didn't propose any changes to protect public health or the environment — not a single change to the original drilling plan. The BLM is now accepting public comments on this statement until June 10, a chance for the public to express their concerns once more and hopefully be heard.

There's a lot on the line. If approved, these plans would expose communities like Bakersfield to further pollution and pain. Perez is doing her part by sharing her life story and educating local communities about the risks of further oil and gas drilling in the area. "They are the ones most affected, so it's important for them to know what is going on and how to make a positive change."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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