The health and safety imperative of preventing new fossil fuel projects

Over the past decade, Northwest communities have successfully fought back against fossil fuel development in their backyards. As the climate crisis deepens and coal, oil, and gas industry interest continue to eye Washington and Oregon for new projects, cities and counties are taking proactive steps to prevent this infrastructure from being allowed for in the first place. On January 28th, King County can be next. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove is set to introduce a moratorium on these harmful projects.

The risks to health and safety posed by fossil fuel infrastructure are well documented. Pipelines carrying oil and gas, compressor stations, storage tanks, and vessel and rail transport sites have been shown to be susceptible to combustion, fire hazard, and releases of toxic pollution in instances of leaks and spills. Shipping and storing coal and oil poses its own unique risks.

While King County does not have any oil refineries or coal export facilities, it is home to quite a large amount of fossil fuel infrastructure and like many communities in our region, is at risk of fossil fuel expansion. Of primary concern are pipelines and trains carrying oil and gas through the region. Coal is also of concern; a coal mine was recently proposed to re-open in Black Diamond.

In recent history, the vulnerability of King County residents to the risks associated with infrastructure carrying and storing fossil fuel products has become apparent. Incidents like the 2016 Greenwood Gas explosion and the 2014 Interbay oil train derailment in Seattle are a reminder that large volumes of fossil fuels are being transported through our neighborhoods and right under our feet. A full breakdown of existing pipelines and fossil fuel projects were mapped by 350 Seattle members in 2018 (you can find the map here).

In Whatcom County, Tacoma, Vancouver, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Portland, Oregon and Baltimore, MD local governments have responded to these risks through protective land use planning. Successful legislation has updated zoning codes to prohibit new significant fossil fuel development. Adapting these strategies to secondary and temporary infrastructure, including pipeline expansions and the local permits relevant to fossil fuel infrastructure construction and ongoing operation, offers another tool to protect local residents from the well-documented health and safety risks posed by fossil fuel infrastructure.

Why now?

The most significant fossil fuel threat to King County is the expansion of gas infrastructure to meet the demand created by major gas projects proposed for southwest WA, such as the Kalama methanol refinery.

Dr. Margaret Kitchell, a physician on WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force, speaks about the health and safety risks of the methanol refinery at a rally.

Dr. Margaret Kitchell, a physician on WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force, speaks about the health and safety risks of the methanol refinery at a rally.

The Kalama refinery alone would use more than one-third of Washington state’s current gas consumption, meaning that should it come online the Kalama refinery would overtax current infrastructure. While proponents of the refinery have presented a plan to ‘bridge the gap’ in gas supplies, this plan is short-term and ultimately depends on the construction of a new pipeline to augment the current Williams Northwest system. This pipeline expansion would most likely happen in the existing pipeline corridor that runs through King County. But King County faces gas threats from more than just Kalama.

Between 2012 and 2017 alone, the Northwest has seen proposals for six major new gas pipelines and in the 2016 Gas Outlook, the NW Gas Association states that a new pipeline is “only a matter of time”.

King County is at also risk from piecemeal expansion of existing gas infrastructure. ‘Safety upgrades’ for aging pipelines often double as opportunities to significantly increase pipe diameter and expand gas capacity. The current North Seattle lateral expansion project is an example of this: A 2012 inspection found signs of cracking and a leak in the 60-year old North Seattle Lateral gas pipeline that runs along the King-Snohomish border. Permitting is underway to replace six miles of the damaged eight-inch diameter pipeline with a new 20 inch diameter pipeline – quietly increasing gas delivery capacity by 63% and ensuring that the pipeline can stay in service for another 60 years. With this ‘safety upgrade’, the pipeline will have increased WA’s annual greenhouse gas pollution by 3%, or three million metric tons per year (that’s almost as much as the entire city of Seattle).

Of lesser but still significant risk is the possibility of fossil fuel infrastructure expansion near the Port of Seattle. This deepwater port has been the site of multiple proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects, most recently the 2015 proposal for a terminal to support Arctic drilling operations. While the project proponent, Royal Dutch Shell, retracted the plan following broad opposition, it demonstrated the region’s vulnerability to new fossil fuel projects.

Our health, climate, and fossil fuel extraction

Credit: NIAID, Flickr

Credit: NIAID, Flickr

Climate change is already negatively impacting health, both in King County and around the globe. The US Climate Assessment released in November 2018 found that asthma exacerbation, extreme-heat related illness, and smoke pollution resulting from wildfires will worsen health outcomes for people living in the Pacific Northwest as climate change intensifies. Adding to these health concerns, the Washington State Department of Health reports that climate change is likely to increase rates of heat related illnesses; respiratory illness; vector-, water-, and food-borne diseases; and mental health stress. Indeed, deaths caused by extreme heat in King County rose 10% between 1990 and 2010, and our region can expect to see more frequent and extreme heat waves as the climate crisis intensifies Climate change-exacerbated wildfires across our region in the  summer of 2018 brought the region its worst air quality in decades.

A new mapping tool developed by University of Washington’s school of Public Health, Front & Centered, and the Department of Health identifies environmental health and pollution disparities.

A new mapping tool developed by University of Washington’s school of Public Health, Front & Centered, and the Department of Health identifies environmental health and pollution disparities.

These health burdens are not affecting King County residents equally. Lower-income and communities of color in Washington are already bearing an outsized health burden. A 2018 report from Front & Centered and the University of Washington identified flood risk, significantly poorer air quality, and higher rates of chronic conditions made worsened by climate change and pollution impacts (such as asthma and heart disease) as existing inequities in the climate change burden our region faces. Neighborhoods in South Seattle that lie within existing pipeline routes, including the Olympic Oil Pipeline, already face more pollution and health disparities than other parts of the city.

Fossil fuel infrastructure is fueling the climate crisis, which the World Health Organization and major medical journals have declared the greatest public health threat of our time.Scientists agree that fossil fuel extraction plays a central part in our climate crisis. While extracting gas, oil, and coal contributes to these climate change-related health burdens, the infrastructure required for their production and transport also poses significant and numerous risks.

“We must prevent what we cannot cure”

Nurses and public health professionals testify in support of regulations limiting new fossil fuel projects in Tacoma in November, 2018.

Nurses and public health professionals testify in support of regulations limiting new fossil fuel projects in Tacoma in November, 2018.

Limiting fossil fuel development can yield major health and climate benefits by curbing harmful air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning and transporting coal, oil and gas. Local governments and regulators can employ protective land use planning to limit new fossil fuel infrastructure and enhance safety of existing infrastructure.

Called by the prevention principle, physicians and nurses have been a key voice in campaigns for fossil fuel infrastructure moratoriums in Tacoma, WA and Portland. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility strongly encourages King County leaders to join the list of communities employing these powerful land use strategies to protect health and safety from these projects.

WHO, Lancet Reports Confirm It: Tackling Climate Change Improves Public Health

“Climate change is killing our patients,” WPSR physicians write op-ed in Seattle Times.

Image credit: Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times

New reports from The Lancet medical journal, a World Health Organization study, and the recently published US Climate Assessment confirm what Washington healthcare providers are already seeing: climate change is hurting our patients.  

Both reports detail striking health consequences of climate change with impacts in the Pacific Northwest. They find that actions to reduce global warming emissions will dramatically benefit health, from reducing air pollution to protecting those at risk of disease. “From the devastating smoke pollution caused by wildfires this year this summer to extreme heat stress, our patients are suffering the health consequences of climate change” said Dr. Mark Vossler, a cardiologist in Kirkland, Washington and Chair of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR) Climate & Health Task Force. “The findings of this report demonstrate the need for physicians and nurses to get out of the exam room and in to offices of our legislators.”

Health professionals in Washington are already mobilized to take action on climate change. An unprecedented medical coalition representing thousands of Washington physicians and nurses endorsed the carbon fee ballot initiative, I-1631. Medical providers have been key players in coalitions that have successfully resisted construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and will advocate for statewide emissions-reducing policies next year in Olympia.

“As physicians called to prevent what we cannot cure, this report confirms that it is our duty to do everything we can to ensure a livable future for our communities and our patients,” said Dr. Anita Peñuelas, family physician and WPSR Climate & Health Task Force member.

“As a physician, I and my colleagues know from the medical evidence and from seeing patients in our everyday practices, that air pollution and climate change — human-caused climate change — hurt real people right now,” said Dr. Ken Lans, WPSR President. “To protect everyone’s health, we must stop using the atmosphere as an open sewer, dumping huge amounts of pollution right into the air that we, and our children, need to breath.”

I-1631: Gratitude and Reflections

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This was a big week…nay, year!...for WPSR and our work to address climate change and its health effects. We were an early and strong supporter and helped write Initiative 1631, a climate justice policy that would have put a fee on greenhouse gas pollution and invested in clean energy projects in Washington communities. As we all get some rest and process Tuesday’s results, we wanted to share with you our reflections.

What we didn’t do:

Unfortunately, we lost this one. We didn’t overcome the more than $31 million that the oil industry spent on an unprecedented misinformation campaign to defeat this measure. That's a bitter pill to swallow, but now let’s get on with the good news.

What we did do:

We built a major climate justice movement in WA, one whose strength drew an enormous backlash from the oil industry. Over the last several years, we have worked alongside an amazing diversity of stakeholders, including environmentalists, labor unions, faith leaders, communities of color, businesses, and tribal nations. We established a vision for addressing climate change while especially protecting the most vulnerable among us. Our efforts have inspired people far beyond our little corner of the country to contemplate putting a price on climate pollution.

WPSR in particular proved that a relatively small group of intensely dedicate people can have an outsized impact. WPSR members gathered over 9,000 signatures to get Initiative 1631 on the ballot. We knocked on thousands of doors and made hundreds of calls to talk with voters about why we support I-1631. Our physicians appeared in campaign ads; nurses appeared in television interviews; and public health researchers wrote op-eds.

WPSR also strengthened our relationships with a number of leading organizations and individuals within Washington’s medical community. We sought endorsements from a number of local, state, and national organizations, and many of them stepped up to confront the threat that climate change poses to our health. Organizations representing thousands of health professionals, including Washington State Medical Association and Virginia Mason, endorsed the initiative – for which we are so grateful!

WPSR members did not sit on the sidelines and hope for the best, nor did they feel their work was done after endorsing the initiative. We gave it our all, signaling to the public that climate change is very much a health issue.

Thank you.

While the results of this week’s election were not a home run for climate justice, there are so many things to be grateful for. Working with many of you on this campaign has been a joy for us. The dedication of our members to the cause of climate justice has been truly inspiring.

When WPSR first joined the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy four years ago, we could not have guessed that our physicians and nurses would be gathering signatures at farmers markets and doorbelling in their white coats. We could not have imagined that several WPSR physicians would be among the campaign volunteers who gathered the most signatures to get I-1631 on the ballot, and who knocked on the most doors to talk to voters.

You came to rallies and held signs. You spoke at press conferences, some of you for the very first time. You wrote letters to your local papers. You initiated conversations with your coworkers during lunch. You entreated your workplaces to endorse the initiative. You hosted informational events in your home.

We have heard many times from our partners in the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy that the health community “punched above its weight” in this campaign. Thank you!

What we must do now:

We have built such an amazing network of health professionals pressing for action. We must build on this momentum, and advocate for policies that will protect health from climate change. We will advocate for bills during the upcoming legislative session. We will work with local health professionals to support community-based initiatives to transition to clean, renewable energy. We will educate medical students about the links between climate change and health. We will train health professionals to understand and amplify the health co-benefits of acting on climate change.

What we must not do is give up. We do not have time to wait for others to act. We must fuel our sense of urgency into continued education and advocacy. 

Our patients are depending on us. Our communities are depending on us. Our grandchildren are depending on us.

Thank you for your hard work and your support during this campaign.

With love and hope,

Laura Skelton, Executive Director
Sarah Cornett, Climate Program Organizer
Ken Lans, MD, WPSR President
Mark Vossler, MD, Co-Chair of WPSR Climate & Health Task Force

Nate Matthews-Trigg, MPH, on Climate and Health

Last month, WPSR Climate & Health Task Force member Nate Matthews-Trigg led a webinar for youth activists with the organization Our Climate on climate change as a health issue. The presentation focuses on understanding the health impacts of climate change, and how activists can use the topic of climate change and health to promote mitigation and adaptation actions, policies, or general awareness.  

Close to 1.5 hours in length, the presentation is a helpful resource for new and seasoned advocates alike. The audience should already have a basic understanding of climate change. The discussion questions at the end can be used to facilitate small group discussions or act as writing prompts. 

Feel free to use, share, or alter this presentation, which you can find on the “Climate and Health Advocacy Resources” page on our website. However, do give credit to Nathaniel Matthews-Trigg!

"Let's go electric!"

On July 19th, WPSR Executive Director Laura Skelton joined leaders from Environment Washington, Sierra Club, Washington PIRG Foundation, King County Executive Dow Constantine and King County Metro Transit in recognizing the County's commitment to bus electrification by 2040.

We know that transit electrification yields immediate health and climate benefits, and we're grateful for the County's leadership. See Laura's remarks below:


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I’m here on behalf of hundreds of physicians, nurses, and other health professionals in WA Physicians for Social Responsibility who recognize climate change as a growing health crisis. One of the best ways we can take care of people and patients is to champion policies that fight climate change and ensure a livable environment.

King County's electrification of public transit is an important means both of addressing climate change and protecting health. Transitioning to electric vehicles will help our communities realize immediate health benefits.

Pollution from vehicle exhaust has been linked to cancers, respiratory ailments, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Diesel exhaust accounts for 78% of the potential cancer risk from all air toxics in the Puget Sound area – and a third of that diesel exhaust comes from on-road vehicles.

Instead of diesel, let’s go electric!

Bus electrification will especially help protect the more than 600,000 Washingtonians who suffer from asthma. Not surprisingly, asthma rates and other respiratory ailments are higher in communities along heavy transit corridors.

Because low-income residents and communities of color are more likely to live along these corridors, they bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences of our fossil fuel use.

To fight this injustice, let’s go electric!

Moving to electric buses will immediately result in cleaner air, protecting some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. It will also protect health long-term, by mitigating further climate change. This is truly a win-win.

We are grateful for King County’s leadership in transit electrification. In order to protect our climate and the health of Washingtonians, we hope that more communities will follow King County's lead. Let’s go electric!

Saying "Yes" to Clean Air and Clean Energy

You did it! On Monday, July 2nd, WPSR members and staff joined our partners in the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy coalition in Olympia to turn in 377,000 signatures to get Initiative 1631 ("Clean Air, Clean Energy") on the ballot. We are honored to play a leading role and represent the health voice in this unprecedented coalition of tribal nations, communities of color, labor unions, and environmental groups working to improve the lives and health of all Washingtonians.

Over the past four months, volunteers gathered thousands of signatures for Clean Air and Clean Energy. From Farmers Markets, to rainy light rail stops, to retirement home lobbies and gatherings of friends, health activists were unstoppable. Together, WPSR members gathered over 8,368 signatures. We are amazed by your efforts and activism - thank you for helping us get here.

At the signature turn-in press conference, Dr. Mark Vossler (cardiologist and Chair of WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force) gave the following remarks. He was joined on the speakers list by WPSR intern Jade Lauw, also a fellow with the youth advocacy organization Our Climate. Mark gathered nearly 1,000 signatures and played a leading role in the East King County signature drive campaign. We’re inspired by his efforts and those of our entire team.

Supporting I-1631 through health-based advocacy is a priority for WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force. As we gear up for November, we’re getting ready to speak loudly and often about the imperative of putting a price on carbon pollution, supporting communities most vulnerable to climate change, and investing in clean energy. From talking to friends and neighbors, to writing op-eds and letters to the editor, there will be countless ways to support this critical effort.

Will you join us?


Dr. Mark Vossler's Remarks at I-1631 Signature Turn-in Press Conference

“Clean Air! Clean Energy!  What’s not to like?” I remember my first signature gathered in the campaign. The woman who signed on a rainy April day outside PCC said those words to me while she grabbed the board and then about to sign asked, “What’s this about?” As I briefly explained the proposal she said, “You had me at clean air.” That experience has buoyed me through the rest of the campaign.

I joined Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility to work on preventing that which we cannot cure. I took time away from my medical practice and my family to volunteer for Yes on 1631 because I know that climate pollution is affecting real people right now. I committed every free moment I had to the effort because there was nothing else I could have done over the past three months that would have had a greater impact on the health of our community. I know that the air pollutant co-riders with carbon are affecting people in Washington right now. I’ve read the studies showing increased heart attacks and strokes related to “bad air days." I’ve seen my own patients coming to clinic with worse heart failure and worse asthma when the particulate counts are up.

The health impacts of our continued addiction to fossil fuels hit the most vulnerable the hardest, from little kids with asthma to the frail elderly with heat stroke to residents of impoverished low lying coastal villages with water supplies flooded with sewage. Yet these vulnerable communities have done the very least to contribute to the problem. It is repulsively immoral that our nation continues to promote interests of dirty energy barons on the backs of the sick, the infirm, the young, the old and the poor.

We aren’t willing to let the naysayers hold us back. I feel so privileged to be able to work with so many amazing diverse groups who are ready to stand up for their communities. This coalition truly represents all of Washington because having clean air and a health place to live affects all of us.

The health of people in our community is NOT a special interest. It is everybody’s interest.

So Yes! Yes! Yes! On 1631…It can be done!!

WPSR members and staff gathered 8,368 signatures to get I-1631 on the ballot!