As calls for racial justice grow across the U.S., the impacts of energy infrastructure projects on communities of color are also getting more attention.
A 2019 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, found that on average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66% more air pollution from vehicles than white residents, while a 2016 report from the NAACP noted that coal plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color. S&P Global Market Intelligence's Energy Evolution podcast recently spoke with academic experts, environmental groups and local activists who shed some light on what those statistics look like on the ground.
Jean Su, a staff attorney and energy justice program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, asserted that racial and environmental justice must be addressed simultaneously.
"I think it's a mistake if people think that environmental justice is separate from any types of injustices that we see in this country. The energy system is deeply, deeply interlinked, if not at the base of racism in this country," she said. "It plays out in where people live, in what air they breathe, and what rights they have, choices on energy and what prices they pay."
One project that Su and others pointed to in particular was the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline that Dominion Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp. canceled in July amid permitting delays and ballooning costs. A proposed compressor station at Union Hill in Buckingham County, Virginia, became a focal point for members of the majority-Black community: like Richard Walker, whose family has owned land in Buckingham County since his great-great-grandfather was freed from slavery.
"He was able to purchase that land from the landowner back in 1867 for $15, you know, and then subsequently 20 years later or so, his son Arthur Harper purchased the adjacent land for $25 for a total of 52 acres in total. And those 52 acres have been in our family ever since," Walker said. "Dominion wanted to pay us for an easement ... so they offered us like some, you know, senseless stupid amount that, you know, we really told them no, 'It's not gonna happen; that land means more to us than what you are willing to pay.'"
Energy Evolution reached out to Dominion and several other companies involved in different energy sector projects, but they either declined to participate or could not meet the publishing schedule.
As renewable energy companies pursue their own big infrastructure projects, University of Michigan assistant professor Tony Reames, who teaches at the School for Environmental Sustainability, said the industry needs to learn from previous missteps and engage more deeply with stakeholders.
"How do you ensure that, again, the regulation is in place that ensures these companies, as they move into this transitional space of energy, that they don't make those same mistakes? And one way to do that is to increase participation of who's at the table when decisions are made," he said. "How do you push back on companies when they say they're doing renewable [energy], but it's not in communities where energy costs are really high or places that have shared the burden for pollution for years? How do you re-purpose a coal plant to become a solar plant now and not some other polluting facility?"
Episodes of Energy Evolution are available on iTunes, Spotify and other platforms.