Climate Crisis: Black Lives Matter, Looting Puerto Rico, And California’s Environmental Racism

By: Steve Horn | June 6, 2020

Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup. In recent weeks, this column has focused heavily on the intersection between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and that will continue as the pandemic sweeps through the world. Add to that the recent police killing of George Lloyd in Minneapolis and eruption of protests across the country and it’s an understatement to say that we live in some crazy, scary and perhaps history-changing times.

So this week will focus a bit less on COVID-19 but even more so on issues directly impacting environmental and climate justice, or ties that bind racial justice and economic justice with tackling the climate crisis and environmental issues.

If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.


 

Black Lives Matter

The police killing of George Floyd has shifted news coverage in the United States from all issues—including the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to kill people and killed 2,952 between June 2-4—back to the country’s original sin. 

Built on the backs of enslaved people from the African continent and on the conquest of Native lands, this legacy has always been a touchy topic for U.S. climate movements. That’s because the country’s professionally funded environmental movement is overwhelmingly white, and environmental conservation itself in the U.S. has its roots in ugly racism. Yet with thousands of people in the streets protesting, led by a genuine upswell of grassroots fury, professional climate groups have cautiously weighed in.

One of those environmental justice-oriented statements came from the Sunrise Movement, the group pushing for a national Green New Deal.

“As a Minneapolis police officer was choking George Floyd to death, George Floyd cried out ‘I can’t breathe,” the group wrote in an email. “That’s the same cry thousands of kids — mostly black and brown — yell out every day because they’ve developed asthma from breathing polluted air from coal plants and refineries. It’s the same cry that hundreds of thousands of people infected with COVID have gasped out as they are trying to fight for their lives when they don’t have access to the healthcare they need.”

Sunrise’s statement called for “a society where everyone, no matter the color of their skin or how much money they have or where they are from has basic rights to clean air and water, good jobs, a safe home and neighborhood, and the healthcare they need.”

Earther Managing Editor Brian Kahn focused his attention on the institution of policing itself and how it overlaps with the climate crisis. He wrote that the impacts of climate change, like COVID-19, have hit people of color first and foremost.

“It’s impossible to disentangle the various threads of environmental racism and its ties with policing,” he wrote. “The history of redlining and police-enforced segregation has led to massive hotter neighborhoods and more people with chronic health problems tied to air pollution.”

Militarized policing, often in response to protests of the very fossil fuel infrastructure fueling the climate crisis, has only poured gasoline on the fire of the intertwined crises of climate change, COVID-19 and racism. Kahn pointed to the 2016 protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

“Peaceful indigenous-led protests at Standing Rock trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline were met with militarized violence, including violence perpetrated by the same sheriff’s department that’s now violently going after protesters in Minneapolis, under the guise of defending private property that is destroying the climate,” he explained, drawing parallels between the police shooting in Minneapolis and multi-state coordinated response of police and sheriffs coming in from across the country to violently put down protests.

Dakota Access is a pipeline owned by Energy Transfer Partners. Their CEO Kelcy Warren is a major donor to President Donald Trump, a president who wears his racism openly and whose father Fred Trump may have been arrested at a KKK rally.

The militarized response at Standing Rock wasn’t a one-off, but a model promoted openly by the National Sheriffs Association. In the case of Standing Rock, police and sheriffs units flooded North Dakota from across the country to violently quell the protest movement. It serves as an illuminating parallel to today, where many of those participating in protests nationwide have faced accusations of being “out-of-state agitators.”

I also reported here at The Real News last year that statehouses nationwide have since passed copy-paste model legislation lobbied for by the fossil fuel industry allowing for criminalization of protests of pipelines and other  “critical infrastructure.” Much of that infrastructure—including in places such as Chicago, Detroit, Houston, and the San Francisco Bay Area—sits in close proximity to communities of color.

Put another way, the legal basis for violent, militarized put downs of social movements against climate change-causing infrastructure now exists. Those who care about the climate crisis would do well to study history, both recent and past, to inform their viewpoint on the current moment.


 

California’s Environmental Racism

The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM, formerly known as the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR) held its final public hearing on June 2 on oil well “setback” regulations, or rules on how far wells must be located from places like schools or homes. California is the country’s seventh most prolific oil producer, with much of its drilling taking place close to homes, places of worship, schools. and other community gathering places. The public comments from the pre-rulemaking hearings and written comments submitted to CalGEM will shape the final rule, if the agency chooses to issue one.

The state is one of the few without setback rules. The lack of regulation has had devastating impacts in particular to Latino communities, and has led to health impacts such as “headaches, upper respiratory illness, nausea, nosebleeds and a possible increase in cancer risk,” the group STAND-LA explains.

A new large-scale study funded by the California Air Resources Board published on June 3 has also concluded that those living close to oil wells in the state also birthed babies with low birth weights. The study examined birth records for 3 million births between 2005-2016 occurring within a 6.2 mile radius of at least one oil well.

“The study found that, in rural areas, pregnant people who lived within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to have low birth weight babies and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age compared to people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only,” reads a press release for the study. “Among term births, babies were 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller, on average, than those of their counterparts.”

At the June 2 hearing, Matt Leonard, Director of Special Projects for the climate justice group 350.org, spoke in support of a 2500-foot setback.

“It’s clear that the CEOs and companies that drive the oil industry don’t care about these communities and they don’t care about workers,” said Leonard. He further advocated for a “just transition” for a cleaner energy future which helps industry workers into justice-based next career steps.

These disproportionate impacts motivated Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi to introduce AB 345 in 2019, which would have implemented a setback rule by January 1, 2020. But as The Real News Network reported, Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez—a former union attorney who has received tens of thousands of dollars in industry donations—unilaterally yanked the bill from the agenda last year and made it a two-year bill.

She also changed the scope of the bill. The changed bill called for CalGEM to “to consider” a 2500-foot setback by the July 1, 2022 deadline and have a setback of an undefined distance by that date. The legislation, in effects, puts an end date on the CalGEM process.

Amended language from AB 345

Amended language from AB 345. Image courtesy of California Legislative Information

The deadline exists because “the legislature wants to make sure that certain protections and processes are included in the regulations, such as setbacks or community input, that otherwise might be excluded by the agency,” Kerry Jacob, Communications Director for Muratsuchi, explained via email.

In a June 3 webinar convened by California environmental justice groups, Muratsuchi also linked the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 due to exposure to toxic airborne pollutants among people of color to oil drilling in California in making the case for AB 345.

“I think so many of the recent developments, whether it’s the coronavirus, or whether it’s the recent murder of George Floyd, it’s exposing so many of the socioeconomic inequities in our country and in our society,” said Muratsuchi. “And I truly and strongly believe that this environmental justice cause of oil drilling in the backyards of children and families of low-income communities of color, this is part of the institutional racism we are fighting now.”

The city of Arvin, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, has a 300-foot setback. Many of the 21,000 people living there are Latino. Estela Escoto, president of Community for a Better Arvin, said that even that distance has proven helpful for halting some of the most severe industrial impacts.

“Here in Arvin, oil wells are near schools, playgrounds and the only clinic we have in the city,” said Escoto. “Day after day, all the children and young people and the community are exposed to pollutants.”

California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has vocally denounced racism in the days since the killing of George Floyd. Yet he also approved 24 fracking wells for Aera Energy, a 50-50 joint venture between Shell Oil and ExxonMobil, at the peak of COVID-19 in early April. Newsom also has offered the industry a suite of regulatory rollbacks in response to the economic crisis it faces in the coronavirus era, as we reported here a couple weeks ago.

David Braun, the Oakland-based cofounder of Americans Against Fracking and the California environmental nonprofit Rootskeeper, said there is a “Grand Canyon gulf between his words and actions” as it applies to his administration’s decision to draw out the regulatory process on setbacks. The reality, Braun opined, is that Newsom is committing “environmental racism” by neglecting to take on California’s oil industry.


 

Looting Puerto Rico

Over the last week, media and police have emphasized the difference between nonviolent protesters and the ‘outside agitators’ they say are responsible for the property damage and arson that’s occurred in some cities. It’s created a moment of linguistic reflection for many, asking a bigger question: Who’s really doing the looting?

As a case in point, the recent bipartisan COVID-19 stimulus packages passed by Congress served as one of the most massive wealth transfers to corporations in U.S. history, while over 40 million people have now filed for unemployment.

Puerto Rico, knows looting well, as it’s been subject of U.S. colonialism for decades.

That process of colonization accelerated in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the climate change-fueled megastorm which killed 3,057 people and obliterated the archipelago’s electricity grid in 2017. As previously covered by The Real News, Puerto Rico’s government and the United States government used the post-Maria crisis to push through a “disaster capitalism” form of looting, linking up with the mainland United States’ fracking industry to ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the colonial periphery.

One of the main beneficiaries of this arrangement is billionaire Wes Edens, whose company New Fortress Energy received a permit from the Trump administration last year to move LNG by rail to export terminals, where the fracked gas is then shipped to Puerto Rico and other Carribean countries. Edens is also the owner of the National Basketball Association team the Milwaukee Bucks and the English Premier League soccer team Aston Villa. He is also now the owner of the USA Today Network of newspapers. The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff reported that Edens is under consideration to land another key electricity contract in Puerto Rico.

That’s because on top of Hurricane Maria, in January this year the archipelago fell victim to a category 6.4 earthquake, again badly damaging sections of the electric grid. While the grid was under repair, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority stated a need to build temporary electricity generating capacity. And who was ready to cash in? None other than Edens.

“On its quarterly earnings call in early May, New Fortress Energy announced that it had been shortlisted by PREPA” for the contract, reported Aronoff.

UTIER, the utility sector workers union in Puerto Rico, denounced the shortlisting decision. In a letter shared with The Real News, the union wrote that it was a false pretext used to enrich the natural gas industry for an exorbitant cost of up to $1.2 billion.

“We object to the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to lease temporary generation and specifically request that the Board provide oversight and investigate plans to move forward with this highly dubious scheme,” wrote UTIER. “Clearly, it would be far more effective to repair the…plant, at a cost of about $25M and use any available funding for energy efficiency, conservation and demand response programs and onsite solar and [battery energy storage systems], than to spend $70 million per month on temporary generation.”

Under pressure by UTIER, it appears the contract is now on hold by PREPA.

This isn’t Edens’ first foray attempt at profiting from public spending. In 2015, under his ownership, the Milwaukee Bucks successfully lobbied the Wisconsin Legislature to mandate that state taxpayers provide $250 million for the team’s new arena. The city’s west side, meanwhile, which is overwhelmingly Black demographically, has a severely underfunded public parks system where young kids and the community barely have a place to play basketball and other recreational sports. The 2020 Democratic National Convention is scheduled to take place in that arena.

So, to go back to where this started, Aronoff wryly referred to Edens’ activity in Puerto Rico as a  “terrible incident of looting.” That looting clearly extends far beyond the archipelago.

Related Bios

Steve Horn

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020. Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice…