The oil and natural gas industry is responsible for 138,000 asthma attacks leading to over 100,000 missed school days each year for African American children nationwide. This was concluded in a groundbreaking new study by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and the National Advancement for Colored People (NAACP).
These new findings help illustrate the pervasive ways in which communities of color are disproportionately burdened with health problems from oil- and gas-related pollution.
For decades, environmental justice advocates have decried polluting power plants and refineries near low-income communities of color. However, never before have cleaner alternatives for energy production been as technologically and economically feasible, and failing to invest in them been as inexcusable as today.
Maryland has the opportunity to be a leader in this regard. We’ve already made great strides in deploying new solar and other clean energy technologies. However, in a state where African Americans continue to suffer from elevated risks of cancer and asthma linked to oil and gas pollution, we need to do more.
Evidence shows that moving away from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy leads directly to reduced hospital bills and premature deaths. The NAACP has found that approximately 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. As a result, an African American child is twice as likely to die from an asthma attack as a white American child.
At the same time, another recent study found that thousands of lives have been saved and more than fifty billion dollars in healthcare costs were avoided from 2007-2015 thanks to increased reliance on solar and wind energy instead of more polluting alternatives.
Clean energy technology, like rooftop solar, has proven it can provide an economic boost to the communities that need it the most. Rooftop solar can reduce the burden of often high, unpredictable energy costs, while also providing good-quality jobs through work training programs. Additionally, affordable solar leasing opportunities in Maryland and D.C. offer families the immediate benefits of solar without significant upfront costs or the need to worry about potential maintenance over the life of the system.
It’s encouraging that state clean energy advocates, along with public health, labor, business, and faith leaders, are already calling on policymakers to continue their commitment to a clean energy future. Thanks in part to their efforts, there are thousands of Marylanders working in solar already. Roughly half of the men and women working in the solar industry are installers, who earn a median wage of $26 an hour. These jobs can’t be automated or outsourced, and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, making them good options for many of Maryland’s more marginalized communities.
But forces are working against access to solar energy. President Trump recently imposed a 30% tariff on solar panels, making the need for Maryland to step up all the more urgent.
Recently, the NAACP, GRID Alternatives, and the solar industry, including Sunrun, launched the Solar Equity Initiative. This program is a year-long commitment to provide solar job skills training to 100 individuals, installation of solar panels on 20 households and 10 community centers, and strengthen equity in solar access policies in at least 5 states across the country. This national initiative will bring critical jobs and energy choice to communities in need.
Maryland’s investments in solar energy will pay many dividends. We can enable thousands of Maryland’s people to live healthier, more prosperous, more dignified lives. Looking to the future, by increasing the state’s utilization of clean energy and reducing dependency on oil, coal and gas, we can reduce the climate change burdens that disproportionately inflict low-income families and communities of color.
We should band together as businesses, advocates, and policymakers to empower families with clean, affordable, reliable energy that will lead to brighter days for everyone. Maryland can lead the nation by acting to require more clean energy in the state and communities that need it the most. Let’s continue to build our clean energy momentum. Our future depends on it.
Brooke Harper is a Policy Director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Chair of the Environmental Justice Committee for the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Nicole Sitaraman is a Senior Manager of Public Policy at Sunrun and former Assistant People’s Counsel in the Office of the People’s Counsel for the District of Columbia (DC OPC)