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‘Big Oil’ puts profits ahead of Chicagoans’ health

While I pride myself on making a difference during my 30 years in politics, sometimes it seems you have to fight the same fights over again — and too often with the same, unrelenting foes. Nowhere is this truer than in battling for the health of the earth and its peoples in the face of opposition from the world’s best-financed industry — Big Oil.

In Washington, Big Oil’s Republican voices are trying to gut President Obama’s environmental progress — trying to jam through bills that would enable the Keystone Pipeline and cripple our clean air attainment, forcing the retesting of E15 automobile fuel and overturning the Renewable Fuel Standard. In Chicago, things are better, with Southeast-siders and environmentalists winning important petcoke restrictions, but even here we see the power of Big Oil, as they try to prevent legislation that would make E15 available.

I have been following the debate over the introduction of E15 to Chicago’s gas stations because 30 years ago I was one of two primary sponsors of another fuel-related ordinance, the ban on leaded gasoline in Chicago. Like today’s E15 proponents, we had science and health on our side. We knew Chicagoans were absorbing lead into their bones, and that our children were most at risk, playing in playgrounds and parks filled with lead-laden soil.

And just as today, Big Oil ignored the facts and launched a smear and fear campaign. “People would have to buy premiums to get the [energy] that their cars need,” cried a representative of the Illinois Gasoline Dealers Association, in The New York Times. “Service stations on the city’s fringes could be wiped out,” the same group fretted to the Chicago Tribune. Sound familiar? It should.

Those are direct quotes from newspaper articles about the fight to ban lead, but they are the same lies we hear today: E15 will be too expensive, cars can’t handle it, gas stations will go out of business. The plain fact is, none of that was true about unleaded gas, and none of that is true about E15. But the facts have not stopped the introduction of a bill to require redundant testing of E15 — testing that has already shown that E15 is safe for use in most cars on the road.

Happily, in 1984, common sense prevailed. Chicago banned lead in gasoline and our actions were quickly followed by statewide and nationwide bans. That stand against Big Oil’s tyranny was repeated in 2000 when Chicago became the first city to ban various toxic chemicals in gas — another reform that Big Oil tried to halt. And again Chicago’s leadership sparked a nationwide policy change.

It’s time to lead again. For those who decry the piles of petcoke on our shores, for those who worry about greenhouse gases that are the death knells for land and ocean alike, for those who are outraged at the disparate numbers of asthma and cancer in minority communities, for those who protest against the loss of American lives in oil­ wars, there is only one choice: end fossil fuel dependence.

I am hopeful that Congress will defeat H.R. 21 and protect E15 and the Renewable Fuel Standard. In Chicago, I am hopeful that my former colleagues in the City Council and the mayor’s office, and my always-strong allies in the community health and environmental movements, will free consumers and gas station owners from Big Oil’s domination, and pass the E15 Clean Air Ordinance that, by allowing the sale of E15, will help clean the air and lungs of Chicago.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Chicago, represents Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.