Oil industry enlists minority groups to publish pro-drilling op-eds
Most Black and Hispanic Americans oppose offshore drilling, so these op-eds paint a distorted picture
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As part of a partnership with the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest oil and gas lobbying organization in the U.S., Black and Hispanic business groups have been placing op-eds in local newspapers touting the benefits of offshore drilling, as Reuters recently reported. Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be opposed to offshore drilling than white Americans, according to a Pew poll conducted in January. The op-ed campaign is part of an industry-driven effort to make offshore drilling look more broadly supported and to shift minority opinion by enlisting groups that purport to represent communities of color.
Op-eds push oil industry statistics but fail to disclose oil industry connections
Media Matters identified six newspapers in the Southeast that have published op-eds by minority business leaders or political leaders who argue in favor of increased offshore oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic Coast. Most of these minority authors are affiliated with the Explore Offshore alliance, which they mention in their pieces -- but they neglect to disclose that Explore Offshore is a project of API and that many of the talking points and statistics they cite in their op-eds come straight from API materials.
API announced the Explore Offshore alliance on June 6, billing it as a “bipartisan coalition representing a diverse group of community organizations, businesses, and local associations across the Southeast that support safe and responsible expanded U.S. access to oil and natural gas through advanced technologies.” The minority business groups in the coalition are highlighted on the Explore Offshore homepage, while most other coalition members are listed in less prominent places on the website -- an indication that API wants to highlight Black and Hispanic participation. The minority groups in the coalition include the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce, the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the North Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce, and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, plus one minority religious organization, the Hispanic Pastors Association.
In Florida, The Palm Beach Post and the Tallahassee Democrat published a pro-drilling op-ed written by Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Tampa Bay Times published a like-minded op-ed co-authored by Miriam Ramirez, a former member of Puerto Rico’s Senate and a co-chair of Explore Offshore Florida, a state affiliate of API's national Explore Offshore coalition.
Fuentes and Ramirez and her co-authors took figures from API’s one-pager about the benefits of drilling in Florida’s waters. Fuentes wrote (emphasis added):
Continued offshore development would put more than 56,000 Floridians to work and add $4.5 billion per year to our economy.
API's one-pager says (emphasis added):
Employment in Florida due to spending by the Eastern Gulf offshore oil and natural gas industry is projected to reach over 56,000 jobs.
Contributions to Florida’s state economy due to spending on Eastern Gulf [Outer Continental Shelf] oil and natural gas exploration and development activities could be nearly $4.5 billion per year by the end of the forecast period.
Ramirez and her co-authors wrote (emphasis added):
Economic studies show that the industry’s spending would bring Florida $1.3 billion per year in government revenue within 20 years of opening up the area for oil and natural gas development.
API's one-pager says (emphasis added):
Florida could see a 37.5% share of the Eastern Coast bonuses, rents and royalties generated which are projected to reach $1.3 billion per year within 20 years.
The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which Fuentes runs, receives support from Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light, two large utilities that are building natural gas-fired plants in Florida. The chamber and the two utilities have backed anti-environment campaigns in the past. In 2016, the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce joined Duke, Florida Power & Light, and other power companies in supporting Amendment 1, a deceptive, utility-backed ballot measure designed to restrict consumer access to rooftop solar power in Florida. The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also receives support from Florida-based, third-party energy supplier Liberty Power, a company that recently paid a settlement to New York state for engaging in deceptive practices and is the subject of a cease-and-desist complaint filed by Connecticut’s Office of Consumer Counsel for allegedly deceiving consumers.
The other Florida minority group that's part of API's Explore Offshore alliance, the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce, has fossil fuel ties as well. It is closely affiliated with the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which has received extensive funding from fossil fuel interests including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. The National Black Chamber notoriously led minority opposition to the EPA's Clean Power Plan, which would limit pollution from power plants. Eugene Franklin, president of the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce, served on the board of directors of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Both the Florida chamber and the national chamber supported the pro-utility Amendment 1 in 2016.
In South Carolina, The Post and Courier and The Greenville News published a pro-drilling op-ed by Stephen Gilchrist, chair of the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce and chair of Explore Offshore SC, the South Carolina branch of API's Explore Offshore coalition. Gilchrist also apparently relied on API statistics in his op-ed, writing (emphasis added):
Offshore development could … add $3.8 billion to our state budget per year. This could create 34,000 much needed jobs in the state
But Gilchrist appears to have gotten one of those API talking points wrong by a factor of 20. He claimed that offshore drilling could add $3.8 billion to South Carolina's budget each year, but API’s South Carolina one-pager claims the $3.8 billion would come in over a 20-year period (emphasis added):
Employment due to offshore oil and gas development activities on the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina could reach over 34,000 jobs within 20 years
The cumulative effect on the state budget from 2020-2040 is projected to be over $3.8 billion.
Gilchrist has cultivated questionable alliances that many African-Americans in South Carolina would not be comfortable with. In 2015, Gilchrist invited Donald Trump to an event for Black entrepreneurs that was co-hosted by the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce. The crowd at the event was "predominantly white," according to The Post and Courier. In late 2017, Gilchrist invited his friend Steve Bannon, former Trump advisor and white nationalist sympathizer, to a minority business roundtable sponsored by his group.
In Virginia, the Daily Press published an op-ed co-authored by former state Del. Winsome Earle Sears, an African-American, who now serves as co-chair of Virginia Explore Offshore, API's Virginia coalition. Like her cohorts in other states, she drew talking points right from API materials. From her op-ed (emphasis added):
With the exploration and potential for development of offshore energy resources, Virginia could gain 25,000 jobs, many with an average salary of $116,000 — more than double the commonwealth’s average. We’re also projected to attract $1.5 billion per year in private investment
From API’s announcement of its Explore Offshore coalition in Virginia (emphasis added):
- By 2035, the oil and natural gas industry could create over 25,000 new high-paying jobs in Virginia
- Offshore development could result in $1.5 billion in private investment into Virginia ...
- The average salary for oil and natural gas exploration and development jobs is $116,000.
The Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which is part of API's Explore Offshore coalition, joined a number of oil and gas trade associations in signing a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management urging the agency to allow more offshore drilling. The Virginia Hispanic chamber has also partnered with Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest and most powerful utility.
Conservative groups with anti-environment agendas and fossil-fuel ties have a history of trying to co-opt minorities
API is mimicking a well-worn strategy in which polluters target minority and low-income communities with industry-funded research and disinformation about energy. For example, in recent years, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Heartland Institute, among many others, have waged a campaign to hinder the growth of solar energy at the state level. That effort has included the false claim, often advanced via minority politicians and front groups, that net-metering policies designed to make rooftop solar power more accessible would harm minority and low-income people.
Fossil fuel industries and their allies, including the National Black Chamber of Commerce, also targeted minority groups with misinformation about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which, if fully implemented, would have prevented thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of asthma attacks each year.
These tactics are especially insidious because research consistently shows that minority and low-income communities suffer disproportionately from the burning of fossil fuels and the impacts of climate change. The third U.S. National Climate Assessment, released in 2014, found:
Climate change will, absent other changes, amplify some of the existing health threats the nation now faces. Certain people and communities are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and some communities of color.
In early 2018, EPA scientists published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that found people of color in the U.S. are exposed to more air pollution than white people are, with African-Americans exposed to the most. A number of other studies have documented the negative health effects of air pollution on minority and low-income communities. A joint report released in 2017 by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force found that natural gas facilities in particular are harmful to Black Americans:
- [M]any African American communities face an elevated risk of cancer due to air toxics emissions from natural gas development: Over 1 million African Americans live in counties that face a cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern from toxics emitted by natural gas facilities.
- The air in many African American communities violates air quality standards for ozone smog. Rates of asthma are relatively high in African American communities. And, as a result of ozone increases due to natural gas emissions during the summer ozone season, African American children are burdened by 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year.
Blacks and Hispanics also suffer disproportionately from climate change impacts such as extreme weather. Just last year, Hurricanes Harvey and Maria devastated African-American and Latino communities in Houston and Puerto Rico.
Polls have shown that nonwhite people in the U.S. are more concerned about climate change than white people are. A 2015 poll of African-Americans found that 60 percent of respondents ranked global warming as a serious issue, while a 2017 survey of Latinos found that 78 percent of respondents were worried about global warming.
Surveys have also documented strong support among minority groups for clean energy solutions. A 2015 poll found that 66 percent of African-Americans believed that using more renewable energy would create new jobs, and 57 percent believed that shifting to clean energy would decrease their energy costs. A separate poll conducted in 2015 found that 84 percent of Latinos believed that the U.S. should mandate greater use of clean energy sources like solar and wind power.
Clearly, minority communities understand the risks of climate change and want clean energy solutions to mitigate those risks.
But API has chosen to partner with minority business groups to erode support for clean energy solutions and promote pro-fossil fuel arguments that would harm the very communities these organizations purport to represent. And, in a decision that demonstrates just how out of touch Explore Offshore is with minority communities, API recruited former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a confederate apologist, to be a national co-chair.
Newspapers in the Southeast and around the country should not be letting oil industry allies spread propaganda and claim to represent minority interests. Op-eds that more accurately represent Black and Latino aspirations would point out that these communities have the most to lose from expanded offshore drilling and the most to gain from a shift to clean energy.