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Our Oil Addiction is Killing Us

Our Oil Addiction is Killing Us


The Religious Action Center collaborated with a diverse coalition of religious and environmental organizations to conduct a congressional briefing on the public health impacts of oil. Identifying clean and sustainable energy solutions that mitigate our dependence on oil is as important as ever. It is imperative to recognize the effects of our destructive relationship with oil, from the impacts on the natural environment and the health of our local communities to the economy. 

Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center, offered a unique take on this critical issue through a Jewish lens. Mark stressed that our oil addiction continues to be a major threat to both human health and environmental health. He also emphasized that the Reform Jewish community approaches the topic of oil dependence as an "issue of justice and an issue on which inaction is simply inexcusable."

1292670018-67.jpgThe Religious Action Center and the Union for Reform Judaism have several resources at the ready where you can learn more about environmental sustainability in your own life including Greening Reforming Judaism and You can also raise your voice and urge your Members of Congress to vote against the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 (H.R. 910/S.482) or any bill that would block or delay the EPA's ability to continue to regulate the nation's biggest polluters.

You can read the full text of Mark Pelavin's remarks below:

"Today I am proud to join colleagues from across the nation to echo and amplify a call to action and a call for justice on one of the most pressing challenges of our time: America's addiction to oil. There are many reasons for our nation to move beyond oil - environmental protection, economic competitiveness, national security. But, as people of faith, we are perhaps most compelled by what we come here today to discuss - the overwhelming health impacts of our oil addiction, and the heavy burden our energy use places on the most vulnerable among us.

For the Reform Jewish community, this is an issue of justice and an issue on which inaction is simply inexcusable.

In our work at the Religious Action Center, we work with Reform Jewish congregations and leaders across North America to effect change - through direct action and legislative advocacy. We speak on dozens of social justice issues ranging from international human rights to domestic poverty, all with the goal of repairing what is broken in our world. In Hebrew, we refer to this as "tikkun olam," repair of the world. That challenge to heal the world has few clearer manifestations than in our work on human and environmental health. Maimonides, a well-known Jewish sage, taught of the need to care for our bodies as reflections of the divine image, citing health care first on his list of the ten most important services that a community must offer its residents.

1280980829-91.jpgWe therefore cry out when we see millions of our brothers and sisters lacking access to quality medical care and suffering from myriad mental and physical ailments.

That is why the communities and leaders I work with have always been passionate about public health issues and upheld access to affordable, high-quality health care as a top priority. In 2007, we launched a major initiative on state-level health care reform. And as national health care reform became a topic of serious consideration, we worked tirelessly for its enactment, leading interfaith coalitions to successfully push for last year's Affordable and Accessible Care Act.

We also know that the most effective and efficient health care is preventative care - and I can think of no more effective form of preventative care than a healthy environment.

Human health and environmental health are inseparable, and our oil addiction is a major threat to both. The oil pollution that pours each day from refineries and automobiles is not only a major stressor on our national health care system, but one that disproportionately impacts the poorest and most vulnerable among us, those who we as people of faith are called to stand up alongside. We join together today to say "enough is enough" - our country has the resources and the innovative ability to move to a clean energy economy that will protect our environment and our health. And the time for action is now.

1279915222-51.jpgAs people of faith, we know that our responsibility, as we are told in Deuteronomy, lies not only in protecting the planet but in caring for the least among us.

Children, low-income individuals and families, communities of color - these are the individuals and communities most profoundly impacted by our energy choices, and least able to effect the political change needed to move our nation off of the fossil fuels that are despoiling our planet and our health.

Just this week, the Center for American Progress released a report explaining that within the U.S., Latinos are most at-risk of the negative health impacts that will result if Congress blocks the EPA from fully enforcing the Clean Air Act. Sixty-six percent of Latinos live in areas that do not meet federal safe air quality standards. They are three times as likely as Caucasians to die of asthma. At a time when we should be setting even more ambitious energy efficiency and pollution reduction targets for our cars and factories, Congress threatens to take a step back from a just energy policy, with dire and deeply unjust health implications.

For this and many other reasons, the Reform Movement has long stood for the protection of our environment and called on government to enact policies that advance values of environmental stewardship, energy efficiency, conservation, and the mitigation of climate change. Throughout our texts and teachings, we are instructed that while God created the earth, it is the responsibility of man and woman to care for that creation. We know that energy efficiency is the fastest and easiest way to reduce our oil consumption and thereby guard public health. These are issues not just of environmental stewardship, but environmental justice.

Our coal-fired electric grid and oil-driven transportation system are among the most dangerous and least recognized aggravators of health issues, from asthma to cancer. And, first and worst, they hurt the most vulnerable among us, those who bear the least responsibility for the problem.

It is the children playing in parks or going to schools adjacent to oil refineries and the subsistence farmers and fishermen working in chemical-ridden fields and oiled waters who truly feel the brunt of our national addiction. They inhabit "energy sacrifice zones" like the Gulf Coast and fence-line communities across the street from petrochemical plants. To deny or minimize the impacts of our energy choices on these families and communities is unjust and inexcusable.

And all of this is what happens when things go as planned for our energy economy. When things go wrong - when an exploded oil platform kills 11 men and begins dumping millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf - the impacts are that much more dramatic and traumatic.

When I traveled with a group of clergy and lay leaders from across North America to south Louisiana last fall, the oil was gone, but the health impacts were just beginning to be felt.

During that trip, we met groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and environmental justice activists like Margie Richard, who explained that their communities have for decades suffered at the hands of the fossil fuel industry - with little legal or political recourse. They have too long lived in the shadow of petrochemical refineries and oil rigs, paying the price for our oil addition in their physical and mental health.

1295067618-47.jpgRecent findings from the Bucket Brigade show disturbing trends on the health impacts of the oil spill. Their study, based on surveys of residents from Louisiana's coastal parishes, is not scientific, but their top-line findings say it all: nearly half of all respondents reported an unusual increase in negative health symptoms including coughing, skin and eye irritation and headaches following the oil spill. Exposure to the oil itself, and to the chemicals used to clean it up, appears to be a major culprit here. To be clear, I'm no medical expert, but I'm confident making this diagnosis: something is terribly, terribly wrong.

And these physical symptoms are only half of the story. In reporting on the oil spill last summer, a Washington Post article highlighted the physical health problems that manifested themselves. The story also reminded readers that past spills, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, also led to mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, as well as substance abuse and the weakening of family units. These emotional and psychological stressors can be just as devastating to individuals, families and communities as physical health impacts.

This is what happens when our fossil fuel economy goes wrong. And these effects take years, if not lifetimes, to play out. As recently as last week, officials in Alabama were referring to the oil spill as "the tragedy that keeps on giving," as the stress toll of waiting for claims filed or waiting to go back to work continues to mount. Service providers across the Gulf - the faith-based organizations that we work with every day - continue to see these disastrous effects play out.

There are experts on this panel who have spoken more eloquently and more personally than I can to the impacts of the oil spill and other environmental injustices, but I want to say to them - and to all of you - that we hear you, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with you in the fight for a national energy policy that promotes the health of all people and all of God's creation.

The Jewish tradition teaches that to save one life is to save the world entire, and here we have an opportunity to save, literally, thousands of lives each year. And we know that progress is possible. Environmentalists have made strides in many battles over the years, even under dire seeming circumstances - the Montreal Protocol led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer, and air and water quality across our country is better than it was decades ago due to effective regulations.

When it comes to our national energy policy, we know we can do better - effective, enforced environmental policies not only protect our natural resources but protect our health as well, especially the health of the most vulnerable among us.

Today we focus on oil, but the lessons learned from regulations of coal-fired power plants and other stationary source emitters are instructive. Over the 41 years since it was first enacted, the Clean Air Act has saved tens of thousands of lives annually and prevented even more cases of asthma, heart and lung disease. In the year 1990 alone, advocates estimate that the Clean Air Act prevented 18 million cases of childhood respiratory illness and nearly 1 million asthma attacks.

1279879223-23.jpgNow is the time to call for stronger energy and environmental policies - not for a weakening of the laws that have been the keystone of American environmental health for decades.

Attempts to undermine the Clean Air Act or block the implementation of fuel efficiency and global warming pollution emissions standards for cars and trucks threaten the well being of at risk communities, undermine efforts to shift to a sustainable energy future, and inevitably will impact the right of all of God's children to live in a healthy world. Now is the time to come together and urge, in the strongest possible terms, that Congress and the President enact and enforce ambitious and stringent energy and environmental policies, not back away from this great challenge to human and environmental health.

Healthy people can only thrive in healthy environments. And the many stories you are hearing here today - and the stories I have heard in travels across the Gulf Coast and across the country - never cease to reinforce this message. I will never forget my conversation with Frank Brigtsen, acclaimed Louisiana chef, who spoke of his friends, his family and his community as they struggled to respond to the oil spill.
And just last week, there were reports of another spill on Grand Isle, Louisiana - yet another stressor after an unfathomable string of disasters.

Working together, people of all faiths and no faith alike are committed to restoring the health of our world. But it is clear that without partners and champions in government, without a Congress and Administration committed to moving our nation beyond oil, we cannot fully succeed. In just a few weeks, Jewish communities across the world will celebrate Passover, commemorating the delivery of the Jewish people from bondage in the land of the pharaohs so many generations ago. We are told to think of ourselves not as a people removed by time and space from slavery in Egypt, but as if each of us ourselves went forth from Egypt. And we consider the causes of slavery and oppression in our own day as if each of us is a Gulf Coast resident.

We think of our friends and neighbors living in communities where their children cannot play outside because the air is unsafe to breathe, where they risk terrible health consequences simply by traveling to and from work each day, and where environmental catastrophes have the potential to destroy their lives in an instant. This is not freedom, and if there are men and women in shackles among us, none of us can be truly free.

The need to protect our environment, for its own sake and for the sake of humanity, is undeniable. The imperative to protect our health is obvious. The morality of helping those in need is clear. As people of faith, called to be partners with God in caring for the earth and protectors of the health of our fellow man and woman - we are proud to be here today.

We call for effective and just environmental policies and protections, including a robust Clean Air Act, ambitious fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and policies that combat climate change and begin to build a clean energy future. We know we can change for the better, and we join our colleagues here today in calling on our elected officials in Washington to lead the way.

Ensuring a healthy society is the responsibility not just of medical, environmental, or public policy professionals, but of our society as a whole. Pikuach nefesh, the obligation to save a life, supersedes nearly all laws in our tradition. To understand that environmental pollution threatens not just one life, but the life and health of every inhabitant with which we share this planet, places upon us an awesome responsibility. I urge everyone in this room to shoulder that responsibility. Together, we can heal our world for ourselves, our children, and generations to come."

Published: 4/04/2011

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