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National, Regional and Local Levels

Years 1 - 4

In the national, regional, and local level phase of the research, we will focus on in-depth case studies, developed closely in relation to our analysis at the global level. The case studies will be based in the US and China, two of the leading countries in petrochemical production and consumption. We will use a rigorous mixed-methods comparative case study design and methodology. We will triangulate data from interviews, ethnography, site observations, documents, photographs, and official statistics.

United States

The United States, a significant leader in the global petrochemical industry, is undergoing a rapid expansion of shale gas (fracking) as a cheap raw material for the industrial process. It is home to one of the largest petrochemical clusters in the Western hemisphere, the Louisianna Mississippi Chemical Corridor, also known as 'Cancer Alley':

  • 85 mile stretch of former slave plantation land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge;
  • 136 petrochemical factories;
  • 7 oil refineries;
  • high levels of cancer and other illnesses.

Many poor, rural African-Americans, descendants of slaves, continue to live and work in ‘fenceline’ communities adjacent to petrochemical sites. Various environmental campaigns have developed grassroots forms of 'citizen expertise', with some flagship victories of legal compensation and relocation. However, these campaigns lack resources and momentum to keep going over time. This case is insightful before of its pioneering examples of citizen-led expertise and its complex and rich history of environmental justice activism. The case also offers insights into recent political and economic changes, including the rapid growth of the shale gas industry and the enduring legacies of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill.


China has emerged as one of the top petrochemical producers in the world, with a strong basis in coal-fuelled petrochemicals and vast potential in shale gas fracking. China has witnessed mass environmental protests against the toxic risks of chemical and petrochemical factories in Xiamen, Kunming, and Dalian, and other cities and regions throughout the country. Toxic pollution in China has become an increasingly pressing national issue, with concerns over dense smog affecting major cities throughout the coal-burning winter months. China provides an important comparison with the United States:

  • Unprecedented scale of toxic pollution;
  • Far-reaching global implications;
  • Stark urban-rural divisions in environmental justice issues;
  • Different relationships between the state, the corporate sector, and civil society.

Through in-depth analysis of debates in petrochemical areas in China, this project aims to move beyond western-centric analyses of environmental justice and corporate social responsibility.