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Lifting Oil Export Ban Bad for the Environment

 (Photo: via Oil Change International)

“Any harm done to the environment…is harm done to humanity,” Pope Francis told world leaders at a United Nations meeting this fall during his first visit to the United States.

It’s this fundamental connection between environmental degradation and human health that has us concerned about the prospect of Congress lifting the U.S. oil export ban as part of any tax package or spending bill deal. Doing so would worsen climate change and threaten our communities with toxic spills.

The list of threats climate change poses to our health – and especially children’s health -- is long. Too many children already struggle to breathe on bad air days, and increased temperatures will make those days more frequent and severe. The tick that carries Lyme disease—fear of which already has us constantly checking our kids for bugs—is already breeding faster due to warmer weather, and other insect born diseases are likely to spread more easily.

Detailing these impacts and more, The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, labeled climate change ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.’

To avoid global warming’s most devastating health impacts and reduce pollution, we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to 100 percent pollution-free, renewable energy. But lifting our decades-old ban on the export of U.S. oil takes us in the opposite direction.

If the oil companies have a larger distribution market for oil produced in the U.S., they’ll drill more—upwards of another 3.3 million barrels per day for the next 20 years, according to some estimates. Even if only a fraction of all this extra oil is burned, global warming pollution could still increase 22 million metric tons per year—the equivalent of five average-sized coal power plants.


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In addition to worsening climate change, there’s the clear public health threat from drilling and fracking for more oil and then transporting it across the country.

While the majority of crude oil is now shipped around the U.S. by pipeline, shipments by rail have been increasing. To keep up with increased demand, oil trains have grown larger and now tow more tanker cars than ever before.

Not coincidentally, oil train accidents – where toxic crude oil is spilled into our communities – have also been on the rise, with more oil accidentally dumped into our environment in 2013 alone than during the previous three decades combined.

This year alone we’ve already seen three major oil train accidents. In Mount Carbon, W.V., a rail oil spill led to evacuations and a governor-declared state of emergency. In Galena, Ill., a spill threatened to pollute the Mississippi river. A spill in Heimdal, N.D., forced the evacuation of a town.

There’s just no way around the fact that lifting the oil export ban means more drilling, more fracking, more global warming pollution, and more threats to public health.

We don’t need to lift the oil export ban, and we shouldn’t. We’re counting on the president and our senators to keep the oil export ban in place for the sake of the environment and our health. For as the pope pointed out earlier this year, and as the public health community has long held, the two go hand in hand.

Catherine Thomasson

Catherine Thomasson, MD is the executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Margie Alt

Margie Alt is the executive director of Environment America.

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