The End of the Line for an Economic Myth

The Trump Administration’s approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline will lead to a surge in demand for oil refining at the southern end of the line, in Port Arthur, Texas – and a real test for claims that the administration’s promotion of fossil fuel industries will create jobs.  The industrial port of 55,000 people on the Gulf of Mexico has been the home of America’s largest concentration of oil refineries for decades, and business has been booming.  But history has shown little connection between the profitability of the petrochemical industries that dominate Port Arthur and the employment or health of the local people who live in this city of increasingly abandoned buildings and empty lots.  Local residents, although tenacious and determined, feel left behind – and sometimes, sickened – by the empty promises of economic development as the refineries that surround them release streams of pollution over their playgrounds, churches and homes. The industries here are increasingly mechanized and computerized – requiring fewer and fewer workers – as they expand their capacity, including for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Residents here have sacrificed much over the years for the growth of the oil and gas industry, including through tax abatements that their local government have granted to refineries and through loose environmental controls.  What the people of Port Arthur have received in return is an unemployment rate more than twice the national and state averages, and higher risks of cancer.  The cancer mortality rate for African Americans in Jefferson County, including the predominantly black community of Port Arthur, is consistently about 40 percent higher than Texas’ overall cancer mortality rate.  Although there are many possible reasons for such disproportionate health impacts, including a lack of access to health care and healthy food, the contribution of pollution cannot be ignored.  From 2012-2016, there were 230 illegal air pollution “upset” events from industries in Port Arthur, and many of these incidents released toxic chemicals including benzene, a carcinogen, according to state records.  The American Lung Association gives the local county a grade of F for air quality.  Asthma rates for children here are more than twice the national average.

To understand the future of an America with an administration that greenlights more fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline, we need to study the past of communities like this one, which have lived with the oil and gas industry’s booms and busts, and promises of prosperity, for decades.

Port Arthur is the end of the line not only for a pipeline, but also an economic myth.

Photos by Karen Kasmauski and Garth Lenz of the International League of Conservation Photographers.