Green Causes Are Not Always Colorblind: Racial Disparity in Energy Issues
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- Posted on March 6, 2018
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The energy mix of a country, state, and local region can be considered a common good, as the power companies that provide electricity are local monopolies and customers generally do not have a choice in who their provider is. While there are operations like Clean Choice Energy that allow customers to opt in to having their energy use accounted for by renewable sources, by and large all the costs and benefits of a region’s energy mix are thrust upon the customers without their input. The political process is an available tool to voice a community’s concerns in the issues that are government-regulated, but the specter of NIMBY will often force decisions that benefit those with the most political pull (e.g., communities in high-income areas and with strong ties to the decision makers) at the expense of everyone else.
With all that in mind, an oft overlooked aspect of energy allocation is the social and racial equity of it all; are disadvantaged minorities carrying an undue portion of the burdens from local energy mixes and not seeing their fair share of the benefits? Is there an uneven racial distribution of clean energy sources compared with dirtier fuels? This topic is a very complex one, rooted in history, socioeconomics, politics, and more; complex enough that volumes of analyses can and should continue to be written on it.
For the sake of a broad overview, though, this article will touch on four key components of the overall question of racial disparity in energy issues and how it affects general standards of living: 1) negative effects from fossil fuels, 2) access to renewable energy, 3) green jobs, and 4) justice and equality in environmental and energy organizations.
Effects from fossil fuels
Despite the push for clean and renewable energy that’s been making massive strides in the past decade, fossil fuels continue to dominate the U.S. energy mix. When discussing the costs that come with fossil fuels, and whether those costs are being disproportionately levied upon the populations of non-white Americans, the most noteworthy topics include climate change, pollution from coal-fired plants, and the effects of fracking.
Climate change effects
Climate change is certainly the most discussed cost of a global energy mix that is addicted to fossil fuels, though it is also a topic that often gets addressed on a global scale rather than in the context of potentially disadvantaged groups. Because climate change is an externality that affects everyone on Earth if the effects are severe enough, looking at the potential global impacts to food supplies, extreme weather events, and general livability seems only natural for the long-term view of the crisis. However in the nearer term, decisions made regarding the world’s energy mix and its contributions to climate change can, and do, affects minorities a disproportionate amount.
Minorities in America, it should first be noted, are shown again and again in polls to care more about climate change and its effects. The reasons behind this trend are plenty, including but not limited to the following: minorities are statistically more likely to be in lower earning jobs and outdoors jobs, which means that weather can impact their livelihood the most; flooding from increasingly frequent and severe hurricanes is more likely to impact low-income neighborhoods with higher populations of minorities; and black Americans are 52% more likely to live in urban heat islands which are especially vulnerable to heat waves.
The conclusion that minority populations are the most vulnerable to climate change is not a new one and was even one of the key findings of a White House assessment on climate change risks in 2014. When it comes to the most severe potential impacts of climate change, low-income communities and communities of higher minority populations tend to receive lower outside investment in their communities, suffer through degrading infrastructure, and they must deal with the legacy of housing segregation policies that have left them in areas most vulnerable to sea level rise and natural disasters.
In addition to showing that minorities rate climate change as a higher concern, polls also show that non-white communities are more likely to support policies designed to stop climate change, such as taxation and regulations on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, even if those policies would incur personal costs to them. Hispanic Americans, in particular, are more likely to be concerned about the impact of climate change outside of the United States, where the impacts of climate change can be even greater but the foreign governments are less equipped to handle the effects.
For example, when President Obama proposed a $3 billion International Green Climate Fund to help impoverished nations adapt to climate change, 2/3 of Hispanic Americans supported the plan while 2/3 of white Americans opposed it. These opinions come despite the economic fact that a dollar spent in less industrialized nations will almost always go further to reducing emissions than a dollar spent in the United States (a recommended read for this topic is Energy for Future Presidents by Richard Muller, which details the numbers behind this economic truth).
Climate change is inherently a global issue, as a ton of CO2 emitted in China will carry the same net effect as a ton of CO2 emitted in the United States. Because of this fact, pushing for a cleaner energy mix in one’s own backyard can only do so much to address the problem globally. However this idea that America can’t fix the climate change crisis on its own is actually part of the problem, with some politicians using the idea that America acting alone will not fix the problem as an excuse for inaction itself, or otherwise saying the proposed actions on the table to fight climate change are too costly and/or the risks of climate change are exaggerated.
But you really have to ask yourself– if the people at the front line of climate change danger and the ones who who going to be first affected by climate change were not minorities or low-income communities, would the politicians be as quick to take this attitude? If it was the major political donors or voting blocs for which politicians clamor that were in the gravest danger, it’s impossible not to wonder whether local actions to impede the global effects of climate change would be higher on the priority list.
Pollution from coal-fired plants
Going from the global impact of climate change to the localized effects of living near coal-fired plants, the most egregious issue that minority communities face head-on is pollution from these power plants. Not only is coal the most CO2-emitting and climate unfriendly fuel in the electric power sector, but on a local level the air pollution from coal plants is linked with diseases like cancer, heart and lung ailments, neurological problems, and more.
As such, living near coal plants is obviously a public health risk, one that is disproportionately thrust upon non-white Americans. Data from many different studies backup this conclusion, including minorities experiencing 38% higher levels of toxic pollutant nitrogen dioxide that comes from power plants and 71% of black Americans living in counties that violate the federal air pollution standards compared with 58% of white Americans. In terms of tangible health effects, this racial inequity of coal plant locations has led to asthma rates among black children that are twice as high as those among white children. Communities of black Americans shouting ‘I can’t breathe’ in response to racial injustice can sadly add another meaning to the rallying cry.
Intuitively, the risks of living near these polluting coal plants are greater when living in closer in proximity to the plants. Therein lies the issue, as the data suggest that coal-fired plants have been more likely to be built in areas that have a higher proportion of minorities. A 2008 report found that 78% of black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant compared with 56% of white Americans.
Taking this a bit further, SourceWatch keeps a list of coal plants near residential areas and the percentage of the population who live within three miles of those plants that are non-white. When comparing these percentages with the overall racial breakdown of the population in each of those towns and cities, the number of non-whites living within three miles of the coal plants in excess of what the number would be if the area’s existing population was distributed randomly without regard to race can be calculated:
From left to right along the x-axis, the coal-fired plants are ordered from greatest to smallest populations of their city or town. What this graph shows is that even though there are plenty of coal plants that are not in disproportionately high minority areas, the ones in the densest urban centers and the ones that were in a particularly segregated part of town (either white or non-white) were the ones that tended to disproportionately influence the non-white populations.
Looking more closely at the SourceWatch data, a fair amount of the coal plants in the list have since been demolished, retired, or converted to a fuel other than coal. However these closures appear to affect plants without correlation to the racial breakdown of racial population and is more due to the fact that coal plants have been shutting down at relatively rapid pace in recent years, while the building of new coal plants has become uneconomical.
However the investigation of where coal plants are and were located is still an important aspect of the equity of energy sources, as the vast majority of coal capacity was built decades ago when consideration of racial equity was undoubtedly less at the forefront of the minds of decision makers. The long life of most coal plants serve to show how their location can be considered another legacy that minority communities must continue to confront.
While switching from coal to another fuel type will benefit under the umbrella of reduced CO2 emissions and other health hazards, every closure of a coal plant is likely to have an even more positive impact on the minority communities that find themselves disproportionately affected by local pollution. As such, the cause of switching to cleaner fuel sources locally should be one particularly championed by minority communities (and, just as importantly, by their allies) as an inherent environmental justice issue (environmental justice being a concept we’ll return to a number of times).
Fracking, earthquakes, and water pollution
A third cost from the prevalence of fossil fuels in the U.S. energy mix is the environmental issues associated with fracking. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground in previously inaccessible areas through the injection of large volumes of water and sand (with added chemicals) into underground areas with low permeability. The result has been a boom in U.S. oil and gas production, as these now reachable sources become very affordable to extract.
The downside of fracking, however, is the potential geographic and environmental hazards that have since been discovered. As research on the dangers of fracking has continued, more concerns have arisen regarding the danger to those living near fracking sites. These dangers include air and water pollutants from drilling sites, risks of fracking causing more earthquakes (which have gotten notable enough that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission recently announced new regulations regarding fracking and testing related to seismic activity), and the chemical-filled water from the fracking process needing to be stored underground afterwards with the risk it might contaminate local water supplies.
Where these dangers of fracking meet the issue of potential racial inequity is the set of statistics that finds fracking is more likely to impact low-income communities and minority communities. Many studies are available on the topic, reaching conclusions such as the following:
- Socially vulnerable areas (such as those that have high percentage of : individuals living in poverty, single-parent households, minority groups, and non-English speakers) tend to have the most fracking wells near schools;
- In Pennsylvania, data have shown that fracking wells are located disproportionately in poor communities; and
- With regard to storing the chemical-heavy wastewater after the fracking process, a 2016 study of one Texas region found that the rate of non-white Americans living within five kilometers of the disposal wells were 1.3 times higher than the proportion of white Americans, with these wells being twice as common in areas with 80% minority population compared with majority white areas.
In light of these studies, many again find it natural to wonder whether these fracking issues are disproportionately impacting minority communities in a systematic execution of environmental injustice. This concern is difficult to alleviate in a world where a gas company executive suggests that his company intentionally doesn’t frack in affluent neighborhoods where residents can afford to sue. Even when such remarks get walked back as a ‘joke,’ it is clear that such jokes are not funny to those affected by these issues and could reflect an attitude that permits the continuation of such practices that harm non-white communities an unjust amount.
Access to renewable energy
In contrast to the perils of fossil fuels, renewable energy sources can bring great benefits to individuals and communities. The question is whether minority communities are receiving equal access to these benefits.
The answer to this question is, as most issues of race and equity in America often are, quite tricky. For all the reasons previously discussed, minority and civil rights groups often back policies that promote clean and renewable energy sources in lieu of the use of fossil fuels. However the discussion regarding renewable energy doesn’t just include utility-scale use of solar and wind energy, but also small-scale solar generation (which represents about 1/3 of total U.S. solar power) such as residential rooftop solar panels. Access to rooftop solar energy is often less available to low-income households because of the high upfront costs, despite them being one of the soundest possible investments with payback periods of a handful of years compared with a 30-year lifetime expectancy.
Even further, Hispanic American and black American households are statistically almost twice as likely to rent than own their homes than white Americans. A household’s status as a renter inherently disqualifies the option for them to install equipment like solar panels, as that is a decision only the homeowner can make (not to mention that someone renting their home to another is less incentivized to install solar panels, or any energy-efficiency measures, if the renter is the one paying the electricity bills). Further, one study has even found that when accounting for home ownership in their data, existing solar rooftop policies still result in disproportionately low participation in high-minority communities.
With these roadblocks to equal representation with residential rooftop solar, the Florida chapter of the NAACP actually found themselves pushing against local incentives for rooftop solar systems because, they argue, these incentives result in low-income and minority households paying higher electric bills in order to subsidize solar technologies that they are unlikely to be able to utilize themselves.
Wanting to interject some original data research and analysis but not finding publicly available resources on the racial breakdown of solar rooftops, one bountiful data source is from the California Solar Initiative (CSI). California’s weather and tendency towards ‘green’ politics makes it one of the prime locations for U.S. solar installations. The CSI provides a breakdown by county of residential applicants to the CSI to receive government solar rooftop incentives.
By comparing this county data to the racial breakdown of counties (using Census data), we can find a (fairly) rough correlation between a decrease in non-white populations and an increase in residential solar applications to the CSI. While this county-wide granularity only provides a general (and by no means conclusive) trend and is thus no smoking gun for injustice itself, this data does suggest further analysis could be warranted to determine if and why minority communities are less likely to benefit from California’s rooftop solar policies.
In terms of action items that might address these discrepancies in racial distribution of renewable energy, progress has been made on a political basis in several ways. In 2015, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP) to dramatically reduce the CO2 emissions of the U.S. energy sector. As a part of the CPP, extra incentives were promised to states that prioritize equity and invest in the communities that were most vulnerable to pollution, including low-income communities and communities with high minority populations. While the Trump administration has since announced its intent to repeal the CPP and it currently sits entangled in a legal battle, the inclusion of such a provision in the CPP showed the exact type of policy action that can be leveraged to address both the pollution from fossil fuels and the benefits of clean energy sources.
In fact, despite the federal repeal of the CPP, New York State has shown a similar commitment that can be modeled by other states in the Reforming the Energy Vision and Clean Energy Fund. These state initiatives for distributive, shared, renewable energy systems in New York included provisions that the Center for Social Inclusion called “by far the largest equitable goals of any shared renewables policy in the nation…this is a step in the right direction, particularly for New Yorkers of color who are more likely to be renters, and it’s a clear model for how other states should act.” Additionally, programs like community shared solar and Vote Solar’s Low-Income Solar Access are other great ways to allow low-income and minority communities to benefit from and engage with renewable energy. These type of steps to improve diversity and equity need to become central to renewable energy policies to prevent further racial gaps as the green revolution continues.
The explosion in clean and renewable energy in recent years has been a windfall not just for advocates, but also for workers (solar energy jobs and wind energy jobs increased 15% and 7%, respectively, in 2017). Studies have shown that ‘green jobs,’ defined as those that contribute to preserve or restore the environment in traditional sectors such as manufacturing and construction or emerging green sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, have been growing at a record clip in recent years. In terms of equity, though, an important question to explore is whether minority communities have been afforded equal access to take advantage of these new career paths, particularly in an environment where unemployment rates for black Americans and Hispanic Americans have historically been substantially higher than the rest of the population.
The Solar Foundation found that, in 2016, only 6.6% of American solar workers were black, despite comprising 13.3% of the U.S. population (though it’s worth noting that this same dataset showed Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans were more equally represented in the solar industry). Within the solar industry, non-white employees are also more likely to fall in the highest wage-earning bracket, while a significant majority of solar companies do not track employee diversity statistics and do not have a strategy in place to increase representation of minority communities. Similarly, black Americans only make up 8% of employees in the wind energy industry. These numbers jump out and should sound alarm bells that the system isn’t working as it should in its current state.
Pushing for clean and renewable energy sources is a great cause for a bevy of reasons, but the fact that doing so also provides well-paying and secure green jobs is the cherry on top. These new and exciting jobs could stand to particularly benefit minority communities, but the evidence does not show that to be the case in reality. Again, the push for clean and renewable energy and the jobs they can bring to a community can and should be particularly pushed by advocates and allies of the minority communities, and the companies themselves should be doing what they can to ensure equal representation in their workforce.
Some companies have made initial baby steps in the right direction, including participation in job fairs that target minority groups and engaging in job training in minority communities. California has also been successfully promoting apprenticeships in renewable energy trades to minorities. These steps are great ones to take, but before real change is made they need to become standard practice and not just the actions of a handful of companies.
Justice and equality in environmental and energy organizations
To wrap this broad overview of how race can and does factor into energy issues, the problem of having too little minority representation in sustainability advocacy groups brings it all together. In response to each of the previously discussed issues, one of the best ways to push for change is for these communities to have an equal voice and to bring their unique perspective to the system of environmental and energy advocacy groups. If there is no one sitting at the table to point out the disparities that minorities experience when it comes to fossil fuels, renewable energy, and green jobs, then how can we expect progress to be made in those areas?
Pushing for more representative diversity in energy advocacy groups has been brought about as an issue for decades, being one of the main tenets in the idea of environmental justice. Environmental justice was born from the civil rights movement and is “premised on the idea that the costs of industrial development shouldn’t be disproportionately borne by poor or minority communities.” While a number of groups have been formed primarily to address environmental injustice itself (such as Green for All) and other smaller energy groups have been formed that include diversity and equity in their mission (such as the New York Energy Democracy Alliance), the staffs of many of the larger, more mainstream environmental groups have historically been mostly white (perhaps due to the longstanding view that the environment was largely just a concern for “affluent, white liberals“).
Even the causes of the oldest and largest environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, reflected the difference in priorities between white Americans and minorities, as the largely white groups strove to protect wilderness areas (i.e., focusing more on protecting resources than protecting people), while the smaller, equity-focused groups address the issues important to their disadvantaged communities that the larger groups do not: such as toxins leaking from power plants, urban food deserts, and efforts to pave over urban green spaces where children play. While the smaller groups are working hard to include diversity in their makeup and equity in their mission, the truth is that they only get a fraction of the funding of the larger groups. As Van Jones of the Rebuild the Dream bluntly put it:
We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement. We’re too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement.
A 2016 study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) that investigated environmental issues and racial equity identified several issues at the source of it all. The NCRP found that only 15% of environmental grants went towards benefitting marginalized communities and only 11% of grants went towards advancing environmental and social justice. A report from the University of Michigan also found that only 12% of environmental organizations have any ethnic minorities in leadership positions, while only 4% have minorities on their board. All of this despite polls that consistently show that minorities support environmental regulations as much or more than white Americans.
As the Energy Democracy Alliance points out, exceedingly large demand exists for solutions to “climate change and environmental justice while creating good jobs among Latino, Black, Asian, and Indigenous populations, alike.” However, large portions of these groups find themselves held back by various barriers of participation, both economic and systematic. Because these issues are more prevalent in minority communities, the establishment of energy advocacy groups who focus on equity, as well as pushing for more equity work in the large advocacy groups that already exist, are key towards solving these problems.
Moving forward, as with many issues regarding race in America, progress made in recent times should not at all be seen as the problem being completely solved. In 1990, civil rights groups wrote an open letter to the largest environmental groups and accused them of racist hiring practices. This action started a dialogue that created some small changes and partnerships with the smaller groups, but the most substantial changes that were needed were still slow to come. Continuing to push leading energy and environmental advocacy groups to ensure diversity among their members, leaders, and missions is a critical and tangible action item that can be taken to improve all of the inequality in energy issues described.
As stated at the beginning of this article, the question of racial equity when it comes to energy is a topic that can (and should) have deep dives of analysis, research, and writing. The issues presented here are simply meant to bring to focus some of the more prominent and obvious ones to inspire thought, debate, and ultimately push the needle towards action where possible. The exact type of action to take is not always obvious, but education on issues like this is always the right starting point. While environmental justice groups were established in the wake of some of these issues, even more can be done to take these efforts and apply them to energy jobs, climate change, renewable energy, and more. These energy issues are directly tied to the standard of living within a community, and as such any racial disparity must be studied and understood so they can be best addressed.