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Don’t Fall for Fossil Industry Spin, NAACP Warns U.S. Communities of Colour

The NAACP is warning its regional chapters not to fall for fossil industry manipulation by outlining the key tactics through which Big Oil advances its own interests in U.S. communities of colour.

Two years after the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People first raised alarm bells about state and local chapters falling prey to Big Oil spin, the legendary civil rights organization has released a second report detailing “the ways that polluters deflect accountability for the effects of fossil fuel production and pollution on low-income communities of colour,” reports Grist. 

The NAACP produced its first report on “the top 10 manipulation tactics of the fossil fuel industry” in April 2019 in the wake of revelations that a Florida chapter was repeating Big Fossil talking points against residential solar after accepting a US$250,000 donation from state utility Florida Power & Light, which produces much of its energy from natural gas. 

That donation was not an anomaly. “From 2013 to 2017, utility giants poured roughly $1 billion in donations into dozens of churches, non-profits, and advocacy organizations across the country, at least five of which were local NAACP chapters,” writes Grist, adding that such donations “often went to minority communities to try to obtain local support for pollution-heavy projects.”

The NAACP’s recent follow-up to that report, titled “Fossil-Fueled Foolery 2.0,” dives even deeper, detailing the ways in which the oil and gas industry—along with the utility, petrochemical, and plastics companies that feed into it—have set about “co-opting community leaders and organizations; praising false solutions like ‘clean coal’ while claiming community-led solutions are impractical; and promoting false narratives about industry support for renewables.” 

Grist points to a separate study from the American Lung Association (ALA) that affirms the urgent need to break out of the fossil-driven rhetorical fog. Citing the ALA, Grist writes that more than 40% of Americans—that’s 135 million people—endure polluted air, and that “people of colour are 61% more likely than white people to live with unhealthy levels of air pollution.”

The NAACP’s latest report lists 10 core strategies that BIPOC communities can use to fight against the “slick tactics” of Big Fossil, “including local organizing, legal action, and pushing for campaign finance reform,” notes Grist. Beyond these strategies, “the NAACP has reached one conclusion for certain: ‘a new energy economy is the only real solution’.”

The infamously polluted St. James Parish in Louisiana stands as a case study of the real-world impact of coordinated efforts at the community level. The Washington Post reports that residents of this majority Black community—already host to multiple toxic industries that now line the banks of the Mississippi—“feared they had no prayer of stopping a $9.4-billion plastics complex that the Formosa Plastics Group proposed in the district on strips of flat sugar cane fields.” With so much cheap and readily available natural gas in the area, it seemed—at least in the Trump era—that the so-called Sunshine Project was unstoppable.

But now, thanks to the work of local resident Sharon Lavigne and activist Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade—as well as to the Biden administration and its steady support for environmental justice—“the company’s prospects here are suddenly far from certain,” the Post writes. Today, the backers of the Sunshine Project have found themselves in the crosshairs of health and environmental reassessments. 

It was Rolfes and Lavigne who first revealed that a 2014 rezoning of the 2,400 acres targeted to house the facility produced a land use plan that “concentrates all industry in the two highest majority Black districts in the parish.” The Post says census data shows the residential neighbourhood (now zoned residential/industrial) “is 91% Black, with 60% of its children living in poverty.” The median family income in the area stands at just 60% of the state average.

But while the injustice of such fossil incursions seems straightforward on the surface, the local response is often complex. St. James Parish resident and councillor Clyde Cooper told the Post that while he believes that projects like the proposed plastics plant “aren’t building our communities… they’re destroying them,” he ultimately voted for the Formosa plant to go forward after the company agreed to meet his terms: to “pay for worker training, hire local businesses, agree to cover health screenings for everyone living within five miles of the complex, install fenceline pollution monitors, and beautify the property to hide the facilities.”

Cooper said he had listed these demands in the hopes that Formosa “wouldn’t agree and would walk away.” But instead, the company called his bluff.

The prospect of paycheque, too, has a lot of power in place where so many are so poor, added Lavigne. When jobs are promised, “people in St. James don’t speak up,” she said. And Formosa is promising a lot, the Post notes: the company is currently “hiring for about 8,000 temporary construction jobs and then hiring 1,200 permanent workers after that.”

But in light of the global glut of plastics, it’s easy to pour cold water on that kind of hopeful projection, said Tom Sanzillo of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “The case to us is clear that there is no market need for this plant, the state can do without it, and, to a good segment of the population living there, the project is a horrible burden, the poster child for environmental racism,” he said. “The president recently highlighted Cancer Alley as a real problem, and this is an opportunity to do something about it.”

Back in St. James Parish, Lavigne said that while the fate of the Sunshine Project is not yet sealed, the fight is looking hopeful. 

“We got them on the ropes,” she told the Post. “That rope will break, trust me.And they will fall.”