How Well does the Energy Industry Serve People of Color?

Aug. 7, 2020
The energy industy (both fossil and renewable) is failing to provide benefits to people of color, and in many instances undermining the health of this community, according to a panel of medical, energy and poverty experts.

The energy industy (both fossil and renewable) is failing to provide benefits to people of color, and in many instances undermining the health of this community.

That was one of the messages from a group of medical, energy and poverty experts who spoke at Race and Energy, a webinar presented this week by Pecan Street, a data research and product testing company in Austin, Texas.

In Texas, for example, the energy industry offers many economic benefits, said John Hall, director, regulatory & legislative affairs, Environmental Defense Fund. But those benefits don’t extend to communities of color.

In fact, Black and Latinx residents generally live near fossil fuel plants and suffer from the pollution they produce without benefitting from the economic rewards.

That’s especially true in Texas, he said.

Neighborhood pollution

“African Americans especially in Texas have to deal with an interesting phenomenon. They live in neighborhoods close to those facilities and bear the brunt of the pollution. Those residents don’t benefit in large part from the big economic benefits the energy sector can and does provide.” African Amercians haven’t been incorporated into energy companies’ workforces or reached a level of equal employment, he said.

The panelists cited a recent New York Times article  about how Black Americans are 75% more likely to live near facilities that emit pollution.

One of the panelists, Diana Hernandez, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, described living in The Bronx, where she said environmental insults burden her community and hurt the health of her neighbors and family members.

“I as a person of color feel really strongly that this is a moment for us to act and to recognize and reckon with the challenges of racial inequity,” she said.

And the energy industry, more than any other, needs to act, the panelists said.

After the murder of George Floyd, many industries — including sports, financial, retail, food and high-tech — made commitments to promote racial justice and equality, said Hall.

But the energy industry — which offers high-paying jobs and good benefits — didn’t take action.

Lack of action by energy industry

“In my research I couldn’t find one energy company either on the electric generating side or in terms of gas companies…that had come forward and made a positive commitment to engage in a concrete way in those issues,” Hall said.

The industry will likely fail to provide a more diverse workforce and address environmental issues related to their operation unless the federal government acts, he said.

Like the fossil fuel industry, the clean energy industry hasn’t extended its benefits to communities of color, Hall said.

Lack of jobs, products for people of color

“The clean energy industry in Texas is very important because of the jobs it can provide,” he said. “When it comes to being proactive in terms of engaging with the African American community and other communities of color, I think it’s lacking,” he said.

That’s true even though these communities often support efforts to combat climate change. Hall cited support by the Congressional Black Caucus for climate legislation when it was introduced into Congress eight years ago.

In Texas, the clean energy industry is missing an important opportunity to offer products to people of color. “If they could actually place as much emphasis on extending clean energy to communities of color in this state, they’d make more money. They have an economic self interest,” he said.

Hernandez said that Black and Latinx people are often renters and lack the ability to take advantage of solar.

Read related article: The Importance of Microgrids for Marginalized Communities

The clean energy industry, like the fossil fuel industry, has also failed to focus on a more diverse workforce, Hall said.

Energy companies need to ensure that their policies and programs don’t unduly burden communities of color. That includes rate increases, which generally benefit White people, said Hernandez. Communities of color generally don’t benefit from the energy sector’s investments.

Inclusion, diversity and equity should be a focus of companies’ missions, she said.

Build the pipeline

“It’s not enough and not okay to say we don’t have talented and qualified people of color to fill those (jobs). If that is the case, I charge you with building the pipeline. We have to think about the short term and long term. If we are committed to racial justice, we have to address the issue of race head on,” she said.

Companies need to think about diversifying how they recruit workers and creating pathways that serve Black and Latinx people, panellists said.

“As we begin to reflect and think about what we can do moving forward, it’s probably the case we have more work to be done in the energy sector than in any other,” said Hall.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

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