Bloomberg Antipollution Fund Irks Industry

05.10.2022 - Michael Bloomberg’s $85 million campaign against the proliferation of large chemicals and plastics production complexes and the pollution they can cause has been praised by environmental advocacy groups but has not gone down well with representatives of the US industries.

While the financial news empire billionaire’s Beyond Petrochemicals: People Over Pollution campaign said it seeks to “turbocharge” existing US community and environmentalist efforts to block more than 120 proposed petrochemical projects in Louisiana, Texas and the Ohio River Valley, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) sees its reputation smeared by suggestions that its companies are part of the problem.

The Bloomberg plans are “an $85 million losing bet against chemistry,” the producers’ grouping asserted in a statement while dismissing the environmental concerns of the billionaire philanthropist, the UN‘s special envoy on climate ambition and solutions, as “unfounded.”

With more than 135,000 workers across Texas, Louisiana, and Ohio, ACC member companies “are also community members, committed to helping to protect it for their families and fellow neighbors,” the association’s president, Chris Jahn said.

“Members of the chemistry industry do not throw stones — we create solutions,” Jahn continued. “As the science behind sustainability, chemistry is the single most important element to transitioning to renewable energy and combating climate change. Nothing the environmental community wishes to achieve on climate can be accomplished without chemistry.”

“Regretfully,” the association president said, “characterizing industry in a negative light has proven too lucrative of a fundraising strategy for some activists, while others recognize immense value of partnership, hard work, and collaboration.” He challenged NGOs to “put fundraising rhetoric aside and join us in maximizing chemistry's potential to solve the world's sustainability challenges.”

Criticism of the Bloomberg plans in the traditional coal to chemicals belt in western Pennsylvania, now the center of the fracking industry, was less polite. “Butt out, Mr. Bloomberg,” an editorial in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette read and accused the former mayor of New York of “using his wealth to impose his will on the people of the Ohio Valley. This “is exactly the kind of elite behavior that is driving ordinary people to the political extremes.”

While many of the projects the Bloomberg campaign disparages are on the US Golf coast, the editorial sees Shell’s mechanically completed ethane plant in Pennsylvania’s Beaver County’s ethane cracker plant as one of the facilities the “meddling New York billionaire” wants to prevent from ever starting.

In addition to support from environmental groups, thanks to a comparatively less industry friendly government in Washington, grassroots anti-pollution efforts appear to have better chances of going forward now than in the recent past. Some believe the petrochemicals industry could find itself swimming against the tide.

Even in a Gulf state such as Louisiana, which lives from the industry, the tide may be turning. Almost simultaneously with the launch of the antipollution fund, a judge at the Baton Rouge District Court in September overturned all 14 environmental permits granted in 2020 to Formosa Plastics‘ planned Sunshine project, acting on litigation brought advocacy organizations.

Citing violations of the Obama administration’s Clean Air Act, the court accused the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) of awarding the permits on false premises, saying that the new complex would not worsen air quality, when in fact it clearly would. “The LDEQ has violated its duty to protect the public.”

Pollution from chemical plants in the state’s St James Parish has long been the subject of local lawsuits charging environmental racism. An overwhelming majority of the population is African-American, and the region’s cancer rate is one of the highest in the state.

“The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones,” Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of the community group Rise St. James, said.  

Also overlapping with the permit cancellation and the Bloomberg fund’s launch was the announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is establishing a new office dedicated to advancing environmental justice and civil rights.

EPA administrator Michael Regan said the office “delivers on President Joe Biden’s commitment to elevate these critical issues to the highest levels of the government and solidifies the agency’s commitment to delivering justice and equity for all.”

In March 2020, the United Nations’ (UN) human rights committee called for the end of new construction in the Baton Rouge area, saying that Formosa’s new complex would more than double the cancer risks in the parish and disproportionately affect African-American residents.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist