“Environmental justice” activists exploit vulnerable communities they claim to help

For years, anti-industry activists have invoked “environmental justice” in an attempt to pit vulnerable communities against the oil and gas industry. They arguethat there is an injurious and, it is implied, even a targeted effort on the part of the industry and government officials – including environmentalist California Governor Jerry Brown – to explore for energy in low-income communities and communities of color.

The National Resource Defense Council(NRDC) reported that oil and gas wells were disproportionately placed near minority communities in California’s Kern County four years ago, and activist-driven reports have cropped up all around the country suggesting that similar “bias” occurs in Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) recently joined the echo chamber of disingenuous rhetoric to lambast Gov. Brown for approving oil and gas leases in these communities.

While absurd on its face to anyone with a passing understanding of either geology or economics, this implication of bias has nonetheless taken hold in the fringe, reflexively anti-industry, reaches of the environmental movement. Thought this movement originally advocated for a fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, it has since abandoned any pretense of recognizing the benefits that oil and gas development, particularly in California, provide to the communities in which it occurs, many of which are far from marginalized.

Rather than accuse the industry and staunch environmentalists like Gov. Brown of malign intent or political malpractice, groups like CBD and NRDC should realize that greater success for California’s energy industry means greater the economic benefits for communities these groups falsely claim are harmed by it. It is a shame that these groups have hijacked a once coherent cause in the name of their ultimate goal: banning all fossil fuel development.

Black gold, for everyone

The California oil and gas industry has been on of the leading producers of energy in the United States for more than a century. Oil productionin California began in the late 19th century and, by the 20th century, California’s oil industry was the state’s number one GDP export. By 2012, California was the nation’s third largest oil-producing state, behind only Texas and North Dakota. With such energy development came wealth and prosperity to local communities and governments. Forbesput it best in 2013 when characterizing oil development in the simplest of terms: “Oil is wealth. Not just wealth for producers, but wealth for everyone who uses it.”

Cheap, abundant energy lifts nations out of poverty just as failure to secure energy supplies can spell doom. To put things in perspective, California is the fifth largest economy in the world, outranking Canada and France, and the energy industry was a catalyst in that achievement. Not only that, the industry continues to be a force of equity, social mobilization and economic betterment. Pitting the industry against communities of color under the guise of “environmental justice” does nothing to spread these benefits even more widely.

Upward mobility for disadvantaged communities

The energy industry provides economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities otherwise depressed by lack of access to tools of social mobilization such as livable income, higher education, or by tools of systemic oppression such as prior incarceration or racial prejudice.

In California, such barriers are tackled head on as the industry proudly employs individuals from all walks of life. In 2013, the Los Angeles County Economic Development County (LAEDC) published a study titled ‘The Oil and Gas Industry in California: It’s Economic Contribution and workforce.’ The report offered a statistical snapshot of the oil and gas workforce in the Golden State and found that 61.5 percent of employees have less than an Associates degree, which includes workers who did not graduate high school.

Moreover, the data show that a disproportionate number of jobs are held by nonwhite, Hispanic workers. In places like Kern County, where the population is half Hispanic or Latino, the energy industry presents an incredible opportunity to overcome social and educational boundaries with rewarding and challenging jobs with good pay and benefits unavailable in other industries.

Last Fall, the California State Assembly held a hearing on the economic impact of energy policy, inviting energy industry professionals of all walks of life to share their stories with lawmakers and personalize the work that they do. One witness, Jerry Flores, an employee of E&B Natural resources emphatically described the impact that the industry has had on his life. The father of three told lawmakers that the energy industry gave him a career, not a just a job – even after his incarceration.

“They do give opportunities to men and women. You just got to give an honest day and the main priority out there is our safety.”

Flores was joined by another E&B Natural resources worker, Phillip Larea, who grew up in the foster care system and testified that his job was a “second chance.” At the time of the hearing, Larea had reached heights in his career that he previously couldn’t imagine – supervising more than 30 people.

Other workers with similar testimonies shared their stories in hopes of conveying just how vital the industry was to their communities and families — often times giving individuals a window of opportunity after society had shut the door in their face one too many times.  Social and structural barriers for low-income communities and communities of color real and prevalent across the country. However, the oil and gas industry help to break down those barriers.

Jobs and revenue for all Californians

 California’s oil and gas industry continues to be a significant driver of the state economy, supporting 456,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs with $38 billion in overall labor income, and accounting for 3.4 percent of the state GDP, according to the LAEDC. Vulnerable communities within ‘close proximity’ to newly approved energy development are benefitting from this growth. For example, in California’s poorest county, Trinity County, one of the highest paying industries for employment is oil and gas extraction. This means that opportunity – not exploitation – is the benefit brought along with industry development.

Taxes collected from the industry fund vital programs and public services that aid the very communities that activists claim are being “targeted”. In 2013, the industry brought a total of $34 billion dollars in tax revenues to the state. Without the industry, and industries like it including the renewables industry, there would be less money for the state to support economic development initiatives and the burden on public services would be significantly increased due to a lack of tax revenue and disappearing economic opportunities that lifted people out of poverty in the first place. Economic contributions by the oil and gas industry touch every sector in California – including health, education, entertainment, transportation and manufacturing. Innovations in the natural gas and oil industry are increasing production, creating high-paying jobs and injecting billions more into state and local budgets for federal officials to use for the betterment of their constituents. With a population soon to reach 40 million, demand for energy in California will go up, not down, in the coming years, and it is far better to produce moreof that energy at home, under the strictest environmental protections in the nation.

The real injustice

Oil and gas is essential to keeping all of California humming – from the wealthier hubs of technological industry like the Bay area to economically struggling areas of the Central Valley. However, Fresno residents on average consume two times more electricity than San Francisco residents and spend 87 percent moreon energy because inland areas experience hotter summers and colder winters, despite the fact that the average salary after tax in Fresno is less than half than the average salary in San Francisco.

California energy prices are already high and nearly one million California households live in energy poverty, spending more than 10 percent of their income on energy, excluding gasoline and other transportation-related costs. While environmental activists are demanding justice for a “crime” that has not been committed, they’ve failed to realize that the communities they’re supposedly fighting for have very real problems that are not being addressed and will only worsen if these groups get their way and impose further regulatory burden on the oil and gas industry. More domestic production of oil and gas and proximity to development is the panacea for this issue that vulnerable communities are facing, and it is one that environmental activists are not only ignoring but fighting.

Paying someone else for what’s under our feet

California is famous for its progressive energy policies and is known as the “clean energy” capitol with cap-and-trade, the nation’s largest number of alternative fuel vehiclesand unmatched efficiency laws. Regulations that are already extremely stringent, for both exploration and oil production (including hydraulic fracturing) have pushed many oil companies awayand stagnated economic development in the industry. Accordingly, California has dropped from the nation’s third largest oil producer to sixth in an alarmingly short period of time – the wrong direction to be going. Coupled with California’s high energy demand, this means that the state is in a chronic energy deficit, forcing it to become even more dependent on foreign sources like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela that don’t share the Golden State’s stringent safety, labor, human rights and environmental standards.

Vulnerable communities need energy, not condescension 

California has vast oil, natural gas and renewable resources that can make it more self-sufficient and secure, and it has the workforce and technology to develop those resources safely and responsibly for decades to come. The only things standing in the way of the state using these resources, and disproportionately benefitting vulnerable communities, are policymakers who propose unwise and overzealous regulations and activists who claim to be advocating for low-income communities of color but fail to realize that’s who they’re ultimately hurting.

If organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity want to advocate on behalf of “environmental justice,” they should consider supporting California’s working families – and, in oil country, disproportionately families of color — by pushing for locally produced energy under the very strict regulations that they claim to support (until they are enacted and these groups inevitably move the goalposts). The approval of new oil wells is not an act of racial and social inequity but rather, an act of conservation to bring forth economic prosperity, lower utility bills and increased job growth for those who desperately need it, all while helping reduce global carbon emissions.

They won’t, of course. Instead, activists can be counted on to continue weaponizing the vulnerability of communities they pretend to speak for in order to advocate for policies that will ultimately harm those communities. That’s not justice by any definition.



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