Fossil fuel

Smelly, outdated, unsustainable and, lately especially, expensive. There are many reasons to ditch fossil fuel, but here’s one more: It’s gendered, and disproportionately harms communities marginalised based on class, income and ethnicity. Here’s why.

To dig into the gender dimension of fossil fuel, let’s start at the first step of its supply chain: extraction. Research, as well as personal accounts, reveal that mining for fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas results in severe health and safety threats which primarily affect low-income women, Indigenous women, and women of colour. Once again, it’s people with vaginas, wombs and ovaries whose health is jeopardised. In the United States and Canada, for instance, air pollution and water contamination have been linked to breast cancer, ovarian diseases and maternal health risks. Adverse birth outcomes, such as premature births and decreased birth weights are higher in areas with a nearby fracking site. 

Next to that, temporary housing sites for workers along pipeline routes are associated with gender-based violence. Sadly, these so-called “man camps” have proven to be sites of violence and harassment targeting women and girls, contributing to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People epidemicIndigenous women and girls and two-spirit people are exposed to high risks of violence. In Canada between 2015 and 2019, 192 Indigenous women and girls went missing and 167 violent deaths were reported (Barrera, 2019). Femicide committed by a family member or acquaintance accounted for nearly 80% of all deaths in previous years (1980-2012; Miladinovic & Mulligan, 2015). With on average three women or girls disappearing or dying each month between 2016 and 2019 (Barrera, 2019), the murders and disappearances clearly are not incidental tragedies. On the contrary, the number of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls is so high that the violence they fall victim to is commonly referred to as an “epidemic”.× close in North America. Particularly bitter is that, whilst Indigenous people possess wide expertise on ecology and land caring, which could be foundational to adaptation and mitigation strategies, it’s their living environment that’s being destroyed and their voices that receive little attention in energy policy. As is often the case, women, Indigenous people, and people of colour are at the forefront of fighting the extractive and polluting fossil fuel industry – which is both a gleam of hope and proof that marginalised groups carry the double burden of both experiencing and fighting injustice.

Extraction, though, also harms men – working class men, to be precise. Men make up the vast majority of the fossil fuel labour force, working in mines, drilling and refinery sites. This distribution of labour means they are more exposed to hazards like dangerous chemicals, live electrical wires, and mine collapse. What does this tell us? First of all, that an intersectional lens is essential to understand the impact of fossil fuel; whilst working class men put their health and safety on the line every day they go to work, the same cannot be said of white collar men dominating the boardrooms of Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP. In a similar vein, local working class, low-income men and women both experience harm from fossil fuel extraction, but in different ways. This brings me to the second point: men are exposed to fossil fuel hazards primarily in the public realm (at work) and women in the private realm (in and around their homesThe indoor burning of solid fuels including coal (a type of fossil fuel) causes pollution, severely threatening the health of women and girls, who spend more time in the house and in many places do most of the cooking. Every year, 4.3 million people – mainly women and children – die as a result of indoor air pollution.× close).

Moving to the distribution of fossil fuel, gender inequality still looms large. Women on average have lower earnings than men, increasing their risk of energy poverty. Energy poverty is a lack of access to affordable energy, meaning that homes cannot be warmed and food cannot be properly prepared. Given the recent surge in fossil fuel prices following the war in Ukraine, energy poverty is a growing problem. Efforts have been made to mitigate energy poverty by subsidising fossil fuels. However, research from Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria shows that LPG and kerosene subsidies do not work for the poorest households, particularly for poor women. The subsidies mostly benefit wealthier households that tend to consume more energy. Second, subsidies don’t solve scarcity, which at times means queuing for fuel – a burden that mostly befalls women and which prevents them from doing paid work. Finally, subsidies do not always result in lower prices. In Nigeria, for instance, low-income women are said to pay two to six times more than the official price for kerosene.

Also, fossil fuel consumption oftentimes means indirect support of oppressive and corrupt regimes. Europe’s dependency on Russian gas is in any way you slice it financing the current war in Ukraine. Similarly, oil import from authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, for instance, where LGBTQIA+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalized sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).× close rights are virtually non-existent is yet another reason to stop using fossil fuels and move to renewable forms of energy, wouldn’t you say? In this transition, women and marginalised groups have a crucial role to play. 

At the moment, women represent only 6% of the technical, 4% of the decision-making and 1% of top management positions in the energy sector. Steps need to be taken to give marginalised groups the say they deserve. Why? Because they tend to make more sustainable consumption choices and as decision-makers are more likely to fight the gender injustices detailed in this piece, making them more likely to be successful in developing gender just and sustainable energy policies.