By Amy Westervelt
Labor unions have been a close ally to the fossil fuel industry for decades, and the industry has often promoted itself as a champion of American workers, a key provider of good jobs throughout the country. But the industry’s latest lobbying effort tells a different story, one of an industry that wants to make sure workers won’t be able to hold firms accountable for failing to protect them from COVID-19 exposures on the job.
Recent quarterly lobbying filings revealed that various arms of the fossil fuel industry in particular are lobbying aggressively to get liability protection included in whatever the next round of federal pandemic aid legislation turns out to be. Petro-sector supporters include oil majors ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil; oil and petrochemical trade associations the American Petroleum Institute, the Plastic Industry Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America; fossil fuel and petrochemical-funded front groups Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and the Center for Individual Freedom; and utilities Exelon, CMS, Black Hills, Avangrid and Portland General Electric.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so avidly championed this liability protection that when, at the end of July, the White House signaled it was open to making a deal with House Democrats that omitted the responsibility loophole, the news merited a headline in the Washington Post.
The push for legal protection makes sense in the context of the industry’s overall response to the pandemic. First, in March, the American Petroleum Institute asked the Trump administration for a “critical infrastructure” designation for all parts of the energy supply chain. This isn’t just bureaucratic wordplay. The designation would help oil, gas, and petrochemical operations continue to operate under pandemic restrictions. It would help advance state efforts to criminalize protest of fossil fuel and petrochemical projects. It would also allow the industry to request various regulatory waivers and rollbacks, incentives, and fast-tracked permits.
“Being designated essential and in some cases critical infrastructure helps the fossil fuel companies to get permits they might need, maybe incentives, tax breaks, things like that,” said Carroll Muffett, President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. “Being designated essential businesses allow them to continue operating even in the face of efforts to restrict operations and shut down businesses in one state after another.”
Even pipelines that are years away from being completed, as well as ethane cracker facilities — which use a byproduct of natural gas to produce single-use disposable plastic, and have nothing to do with producing energy at all — were designated “essential” despite a record-breaking drop in demand for oil and gas and an oversupply so great it caused storage problems.
So: In order to get various permits, incentives, and regulatory rollbacks, the fossil fuel industry needed to be deemed “essential.” To justify that designation, energy workers needed to show up to work. For some workers that has meant piling into so-called “man-camps,” temporary lodging that firms provide for pipeline construction workers by cramming as many men into as small a space as possible.
For others, it has meant reporting for work on offshore oil rigs, also notorious for their cramped quarters. In early April, the Trump Administration flirted with the idea of shutting down offshore oil platforms temporarily to manage the inevitable risk of the virus spreading like wildfire in such conditions. But instead, the administration has “solved” this problem by ceasing to track cases on these oil rigs.
Meanwhile, reports of of sick and dying fossil energy workers are coming in from all over the world: 3,536 cases in Midland and Ector counties in Texas by mid-July, according to San Angelo Live, while Transport Times covered well over 100 cases at Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s Galveston Bay refinery. Around the same time, the Pittsburgh Business Times reported 17 cases at Shell’s ethane cracker construction site in Pennsylvania, and the Mexican state oil company Pemex reported 202 deaths, according to Bloomberg. KHOU.com: Nine cases at a Shell offshore platform in the Gulf. SP Global: 544 active cases amongst offshore oil workers in Brazil. Industry news outlet The Energy Mix: 107 cases at a tar sands man camp in Alberta, linked to cases in five other provinces. Victoria Advocate; 20 cases at the Formosa Plastics plant, under construction in Louisiana. Energy Voice: 200 cases on North Sea oil platforms. Reuters: 18 cases at Total’s LNG facility in Mozambique, representing more than half of that country’s total cases.
In addition to putting their own workers at risk, and pushing for a liability waiver to avoid accountability for it, the industry has become a global coronavirus super spreader. In Mozambique, Total’s LNG facility is the epicenter of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak. In Canada, man camps are responsible for spreading the virus to at least five provinces. In the U.S., one Texas refinery is known to have spread the virus to at least four counties.
With a liability shield in place, no one will be able to hold them accountable for failing to provide safe workplaces.
“If Democrats fold and Trump signs something like the McConnell bill, it is a big red sign telling corporations to cut corners and make their workers less safe because, hey, there's no bringing us to court over this,” said Lukas Ross, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Friends of the Earth. “The McConnell bill” refers to the HEALS Act, the Republican Senate majority’s late-July answer to the HEROES Act that the Democratic-led House passed in May, which did not include liability protection.
The United Steelworkers Union, which represents oil and gas workers, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Senator McConnell said in a statement that he believes the legal liability shield is “narrowly crafted to keep us from having an epidemic of lawsuits which has already begun which will dramatically slow our efforts to get back to normal.”
It’s not just workers who would be directly affected by such a policy, but also the various communities in close
proximity to offshore rigs and man-camps.
“Fossil fuel companies are super spreaders of Covid,” said Casey Camp-Horinek, a member of the Ponca Nation, and environmental ambassador and board member of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. ”We know that man-camps not only are going to come with drugs that are going to be killers, but with diseases that are going to be killers. And this is going to just grant them immunity.”
Residents of communities surrounded by oil and gas operations also have higher rates of asthma and other lung diseases, which put them at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Camp-Horinek points out that most residents in these communities are low-income workers, as well.
“We are in an area of poverty — who can afford the cleaners that are necessary, who can afford to isolate? We're those people who have to have these jobs in McDonald's and the janitors and work in the nursing homes and wherever we might be able to get hired because we're the brown people of the area,” she said. “We don't have broadband. We don't have the ability to sit at home and do our work from home.”
The White House and Congressional leaders are still negotiating over what will be included in the next federal pandemic aid package.