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This is what they call "essential for life"
The environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio has everything to do with our dependence on fossil fuels.
I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to explain the inextricable link between the ongoing environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio and the climate crisis. And my brain keeps coming back to this one commercial.
It’s from Valero—the world’s biggest petroleum refiner—and it aired last year during football season. “Valero helps make the products that make life go,” a soothing female voice says.
In the commercial, we watch a new father imagining his infant daughter grow up. As she gets older, she’s surrounded by plastic products made from petrochemicals: crayons, lip gloss, a plastic drum set. The father beams with pride. The soothing voice returns. “Essential products,” she says. “Essential for life.”
The commercial is supposed to serve as an invitation for us to think about the wonderful things that can happen to a child because of plastics.
But when I watch it, all I can think about is the children in East Palestine, where the air was recently coated in the cancer-causing chemicals needed to make these plastics—the same ones we’re told are “essential for life.”
This was a fossil fuel industry spill
Somehow, the media narrative of the environmental disaster in Ohio has managed to almost entirely skip over its connection to America’s insatiable demand for fossil fuels in the form of plastics.
But this was a fossil fuel industry spill. Five of the 11 derailed cars containing hazardous materials were transporting vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing substance used to make polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, the third most-used type of plastic in the world. According to CBS News, the volatile compound is "used almost exclusively by the plastics industry”:
The problem begins at vinyl chloride's origins. It's generated from ethane, which is obtained through fracking natural gas, a process that's significantly grown since 2013 and when done, emits the greenhouse gas methane — a major driver of climate change. PVC, according to a 2020 study, has a "high potential in global warming than other plastics" due to its high energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
The other chemicals that released from the derailment were also used to make petrochemical-based plastics. “Also on the train were butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate—both toxic ingredients in plastics—and a slew of other chemicals, which mixed together and burned,” wrote Wired reporter Matt Simon.
Society’s demand for these plastics is quickly becoming a significant obstacle to climate progress. Though emissions from the energy sector are projected to decline by 2050, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that will be offset by demand for fossil fuel-based plastics, which are projected to drive half of oil demand growth by 2050.
This is why the fossil fuel industry keeps making those ads about the necessity of plastic. They want to keep fueling this demand, consequences for the most vulnerable be damned.
“Essential for life”—but not all lives
Valero is far from the only oil company to argue that life depends on fossil fuel-based plastic. Just this month, we covered a similar ad claiming footballs, helmets, and other things made of plastic simply couldn’t exist without oil. We’ve also covered how the industry pushes this same message on public school children, like in Oklahoma, where students are taught that "Having no petroleum is like a nightmare!
What these ads rarely mention, however, is the nightmare of having to live near any of the infrastructure that manufactures or transports the materials necessary to make these plastics.
The reality is that East Palestine is just the latest community to experience this nightmare. As CBS News reports:
As of 2021, vinyl chloride ranks as one of the most released chemicals in the U.S. Out of 531 chemicals reported to the agency, the substance ranks 117th, with one being the highest releases.
The emissions are known to have contributed to health issues in nearby communities.
Mossville, Lousiana, a tiny town just west of Lake Charles that was founded by people who were formerly enslaved, has been historically plagued by manufacturing pollution. The area is surrounded by more than a dozen industrial facilities, including at least one working with vinyl chloride that has a history of violations and scores far above national and industry levels for factors contributing to health issues. …
The area is part of what's known as "cancer alley."
"It's a predominantly Black and Brown community. And a lot of the plastics manufacturing companies that are around there, these are the ones that are producing the same precursors that are getting us to PVC plastic and other types of plastics," Díaz Leiva said.
To remain the dominant source of energy in the world, the fossil fuel industry needs the public to believe that the positives of fossil fuels outweigh the negatives.
It’s much easier to push that narrative when the worst negatives—the oil refinery air pollution, the coal ash water contamination, the petrochemical train derailments—only affect the poorest in society.
The right’s denial continues
It’s safe to say that conservative media does not see this issue the way I do.(Surprise!)
In his prime-time show last week, Tucker Carlson said President Biden “didn’t even notice” the train derailment because “It had nothing to do with equity or climate change.” Fox News has criticized Biden for tweeting about the climate crisis amid the disaster. An op-ed in the Western Standard argues that liberals “would rather try to scare you about climate change than actually deal with real pollution.”
For them, the train derailment and subsequent chemical release represents a “real” environmental problem—one that isn’t connected to climate change or environmental justice at all. Thus, this disaster illustrates how progressives’ environmental concerns are fake.
It makes sense why they’d take that position. It wouldn’t serve conservative interests to let people know that, actually, this environmental disaster was caused by fossil fuels. It wouldn’t serve conservative interests to let people know that actually, plastic sometimes hurts people.
This is why it’s so important for the rest of the media to be making these clear, factual connections. If they don’t, the fossil fuel industry will continue to take credit for all the benefits of plastic without ever being made to answer for its harms.
The Ohio Derailment Lays Bare the Hellish Plastic Crisis. Wired, February 2023.
Derailed Train in Ohio Carried Chemical Used to Make PVC, ‘the Worst’ of the Plastics. Inside Climate, February 2023.
A Major but Little-Known Supporter of Climate Denial: Freight Railroads. The Atlantic, December 2019.
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