author: Anya Galli
“Power Disproportionalities: Linking Emissions Extremes to Social Forces.”
Anya M. Galli and Mary B. Collins
Saturday, August 22, 4:30-6:10
Regular Session: Corporate Power, Politics, and the Environment
Social scientists have provided extensive descriptive and empirical evidence of the problem of environmental injustice by showing that production and impacts of environmental harm are unequally distributed. But less is known about the specific processes and privileges that contribute to environmental inequality. Even though policies are in place to prevent environment harm and punish its perpetrators, institutions often fail to uphold their responsibility to protect the environment and, instead, implement policies in ways that benefit private industry rather than public interests.
The research we will present at #asa15 investigates the processes that create and maintain environmental harm by industrial producers. We build on previous “disproportionality” research on industrial pollution, which shows that a scant minority of facilities is responsible for the majority of environmental harm within their sectors by investigating the distribution of pollution one politically and economically dominant industrial sector—coal-fired electric utilities. Then, we build on Bill Freudenburg’s concept of the “double diversion” of environmental inequality by looking at the political and ideological power that extreme polluters wield in order to maintain their privileged status.
Coal-fired power plants account for the majority of industrial emissions of CO2, nitrous oxides (NOx), and sulfur oxides (SOx) emissions in the US. Despite declines in coal production and consumption over the past two decades, coal-powered electricity generation remains the primary source of electric energy in the US, while producing as many as 67 different hazardous air pollutants and dangerous levels of particulate matter. Despite federal requirements for the implementation of pollution-reduction technologies, coal-fired power plants continue to produce approximately two-thirds of SOx and one-third of NOx emissions in the US each year. Although recent regulations have targeted this persistent emissions problem—most notably the Obama Administration’s memorandum on CO2 and co-pollutant emissions and the EPA’s proposed “Clean Power Plan” —the efficacy of these policies is beholden to the broader political context in which they are debated and implemented, a context in which the coal industry holds significant influence.
We use a mixed-methods approach to show inequality in the generation of air toxics and greenhouse gas emissions among power plants and assess the contexts under which the worst facilities are able to persist as producers of extreme levels of pollution. By identifying disproportionate levels of emissions generation by a minority of power plants, this project demonstrates the effect of a small number of facilities on the environmental impact of an entire sector. Then, analysis of facility ownership and political contributions makes visible the foundation of political privilege upon which these environmental inequities are maintained. Finally, we will discuss plans for future case studies of the ideological mechanisms that support disproportionate patterns of pollution.
Anya Galli is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland—College Park, where she studies environmental sociology and social movements. Her research addresses environmental inequality and industrial pollution in the US, focusing on the socio-political determinants of disproportionate emissions in the coal-fired power industry. She is also a Fellow with the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, where she researches environmental stewardship and civic participation.
Mary Collins is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.