For decades, state governments and private companies have asserted that oil production sites were chosen solely by natural factors: where oil was most abundant, easiest to drill, and cheapest to procure. But a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley identifies more pernicious motivations, suggesting that social factors — namely race — played a major role in the location of oil production.

The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, compared the locations of more than 10,000 oil drilling sites in 33 cities to redlining maps from 1940 that identified predominantly Black neighborhoods. The research found that formerly redlined communities are home to roughly twice as many oil and gas drilling sites as non-redlined, predominantly white communities. 

Notably, the findings indicate that more sites began to pop up after redlining began, suggesting a deliberate practice of placing toxic oil production in communities of color. 

“We saw the greatest disparities among people living near oil wells in Black communities,” said David González, the study’s lead author and an environmental scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. 

“This is a clear pattern,” he added. “While oil drilling was happening before redlining, the bulk of oil production has happened since it began. It is a manifestation of structural racism.” 

Black people are 75% more likely than white people to live next to polluting sites, such as oil refineries or coal plants, according to a 2017 report from the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force. More than 1 million Black Americans are exposed to the invisible forms of pollution from oil drilling, including noise, air and water pollution. And oil drilling takes place throughout the country, from California to Oklahoma and even in Detroit

The impacts on the climate are concerning, too. Methane, regularly emitted from oil wells, has climate impacts that are 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

The impacts can be deadly. Living near sites of oil and gas drilling has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, severe respiratory illnesses, and depression. It also contributes to a major health impact affecting Black communities: maternal health. Proximity to oil and gas wells is linked to birth complications, including preterm births, neural tube defects, and adverse reproductive outcomes, such as increased maternal mortality rates. 

In California specifically, where the 2017 report found that more than 100,000 Black people live within a half-mile of an oil production site, one study concluded that women living in high-volume oil well areas were 40% more likely to have an infant weighing less than 5.5 pounds, which is linked to higher rates of illnesses and developmental delays.

The new research examined oil drilling locations in cities in 13 states across the South, Midwest, and Northeast. The study was inspired by González’s grandfather who grew up in a redlined community of Los Angeles, which is home to the largest concentration of residential oil drilling in the country. Other examples outlined in the study include Akron and Youngstown in Ohio; Tulsa and Oklahoma City in Oklahoma; Kansas City, Missouri; and New York City — all cities with high proportions of Black residents compared to the country at large.  

Anna Littlejohn, the Environmental & Climate Justice Chair of Oklahoma’s NAACP chapter, says the high levels of segregation in the state have left “a staggering number of industrial sites” in Black neighborhoods. Nearly 75,000 Black residents — or more than a fifth of the state’s Black population — live within a half-mile of an oil production site, according to the 2017 report from the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force. 

“The life expectancy of residents in toxic areas is significantly lower,” Littlejohn said. “These people can’t even spend relaxing time outside without concerns about air quality.” 

She noted that basic needs like transportation are complicated by air pollution and the prevalence of oil drilling. 

“People in these areas are less likely to have cars, which means they rely on public transport or walking,” Littlejohn said. “Then, walking increases exposure to toxic air.”

González, the lead author, connects the prevalence of oil drilling in Oklahoma’s Black neighborhoods in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to the now-famous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

“Just a few years after the Tulsa massacre, redlining begins and then we start to see nearly all of the area’s wells being drilled in redlined neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of these local, state, and national policies purposefully directing these sources of pollution towards Black, racial minority communities.”
While redlining is no longer codified into the country’s law codes, in the decades since, little has been done to protect communities from its impacts. Of the top eight oil-producing states in the country, only four have laws enacting buffer zone requirements between oil wells and residential areas. California, which would be the fifth state, is expected to pass a buffer zone law in the coming months.

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Capital B. Twitter @AdamLMahoney