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Big Oil dirties California’s politics and air

Pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield. An advocacy group says the fossil fuel industry is harming the health of California’s Latino communities.
Pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield. An advocacy group says the fossil fuel industry is harming the health of California’s Latino communities. The Associated Press

The oil industry isn’t only polluting our air; it’s polluting our politics as well.

Take a look at the latest lobbying figures released by the California Secretary of State’s Office. In the third quarter of this year alone, the oil lobby spent more than $11 million getting lawmakers in Sacramento to do its bidding. Its top priority: killing part of Senate Bill 350 that would have cut statewide gasoline consumption in half by 2030. It also spent millions on ads that independent watchdogs called “misleading” and “outright lies.” They pretended to be the champion for poor and working-class people, while standing in the way of measures to help Latinos and others who bear the greatest burden of air pollution.

But California’s Latinos are not passive victims. We have a long history of fighting for justice, like the days half a century ago when Latino farmworkers joined Filipino strikers for better wages and working conditions in California’s grape fields. Time and again, we fight for our homes, our livelihoods and our families – and we vote.

Fortunately, the rest of SB 350 passed, and its other provisions – a 50 percent goal for renewable energy and 50 percent improvement in building efficiency by 2030 – are clear wins for Californians interested in a cleaner and more prosperous future.

But the fossil fuel industry’s battle against the emerging clean energy economy is costing Californians money and taking a terrible toll in disease and death in our communities.

Latinos are 165 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate-matter pollution compared with non-Hispanic whites. We are 51 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone. And with one of every two Latinos living in areas that frequently violate clean air rules, it makes sense that our community is three times more likely to die from asthma, since exposure to air pollution can aggravate pre-existing health problems.

When the oil industry threatens our communities, we notice. When our representatives in Sacramento turn the Capitol into a corrupt brokerage firm for corporate interests, we see that, too, and we won’t forget.

In a recent poll of California’s Latino voters, an overwhelming 79 percent said they want our state to tackle climate change and air pollution. They want lawmakers to invest more in local, renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. Three-quarters said their opinion of their representative would be more favorable if he or she backed a bill cutting the use of fossil fuels, and 82 percent said their view would be more favorable if their representative supported a bill to levy new penalties on companies that pollute.

Fortunately, momentum is on our side. This year the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed bills that promote environmental justice for all Californians. They include measures that provide $1 billion for the nation’s largest solar-energy program for low-income families, diversify the communities represented on the California Air Resources Board, direct some fines collected from polluters to projects benefiting communities of color and protect low-income communities from hazardous waste.

Going forward, we want legislators to listen as much to the voices of communities and families as to the rich and big corporations. Latinos want thriving communities, free of toxic pollution. We want a cleaner economy and a healthier state, for everyone who lives here.

Favianna Rodriguez is co-director of Presente.org, a national Latino online advocacy group. Matt Nelson is its managing director.

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