Black Leaders Fighting President’s Environmental Agenda

Published September 23, 2015

A number of leaders — activists and state and local politicians — of the African American community are publicly fighting President Barack Obama’s aggressive environmental agenda. 

Testifying before before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June, National Black Chamber of Commerce President Harry Alford testified in opposition to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, citing a study the Black Chamber commissioned which found the Clean Power Plan would increase black poverty by 23 percent and cause the loss of 7 million jobs for black Americans by 2035. 

More recently, at an Affordable Energy Summit, held in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 24, Niger Innis, representing the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the Congress of Racial Equality, confirmed minorities and people living in poor, inner-city communities are getting slammed with higher energy prices from the President’s push for renewable energy, while receiving none of the purported health or economic benefits of wind and solar power.

Now black leaders are gearing up to fight the Administration’s expected tightening of restrictions for ozone, the pollutant that causes smog, by Oct. 1.

Some local and state officials argue they are still trying to comply with the ozone requirements issued by George W. Bush’s EPA in 2008, and a stricter standard would stifle job growth, inflicting even more pain on their struggling economies. 

“There has to be balance in the application of this policy, particularly when you look at the fact that the standard was recently changed and that industry, particularly the steel industry, have worked hard to achieve the standards and have some challenges in their efforts to achieve the standards,” Gary, Indiana’s first African-American female mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, told Politico

Criticism Hard to Ignore

Politico notes, Obama has often shrugged off criticism from conservatives and business groups his environmental regulations harm the economy and has derided critics of his climate and air pollution agenda for using scare tactics and “stale arguments” claiming stronger regulations will harm minority and low-income communities. 

With these same arguments now coming from leaders of the very communities the President claims to be attempting to protect, they may be harder to dismiss. For instance, Democratic Missouri state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a staunch supporter of President Obama in the past, wrote Obama senior advisor Brian Deese in July concerning the anticipated Ozone restrictions stating, “I know I speak for the vast majority of my 5th District constituents here in St. Louis when I say I appreciate the job President Obama has done, especially the moral leadership he showed in the face of racial tragedies in Ferguson and other communities over the past year.” 

“But,” Nasheed continued, “lowering the ozone threshold too far would make things worse for a city like St. Louis that is “still feeling the pain of the 2007-2009 recession.” Nasheed continued, stricter ozone standards could “create new hardships for already struggling low-income urban families.” 

Widespread Opposition

Politico notes while opposition isn’t universal among black officials in cities and states, influential groups including the African American Mayors Association, as well as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the National Association of Regional Councils, have all requested any new ozone pollution restrictions be put on hold. 

Gary Mayor Freeman-Wilson though originally backing EPA’s plan to lower the ozone limits had a change of heart after 300 residents were laid off and the city lost significant tax revenue from the closure of a U.S. Steel coke plant. 

Some black politicians, like Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who is black and represents Pittsburgh, say they fear the new regulations will go too far, and even the rules in place now are difficult to meet. Wheatley says he’s heard from both environmentalists who support a tighter rule and also local business leaders who worry tougher smog standards will hurt his district’s effort to build facility to process oil and gas from the Marcellus Shale.

“It could be a major economic boon,” Wheatley said. “So it’s a balancing act for me.”

 Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, current president of the African American Mayors Association, wrote to Obama in August many localities are struggling to pinpoint the sources of the ozone pollution and put in place measures to bring them into compliance with the existing rule. Benjamin’s letter points out, even in areas where the source of the pollution is easier to identify, “mayors, county officials and governors still face the challenge of curtailing ozone while expanding the industrial production, construction, and infrastructure projects that create jobs and grow our tax base.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.