The fossil fuel industry is increasingly engaging in what Amy Westervelt described as “woke-washing.” It's a form of reputational propaganda that wants you to believe that the industry responsible for inflicting a truly incredible amount of pain and pollution on poor and BIPOC communities is actually their savior and only hope for living happy, healthy lives.
It hasn’t come out of nowhere. For at least the last seven years, we’ve been warning about the increased use of the “energy poverty” rhetoric the fossil fuel industry has propagated to suggest that the transition to clean energy will be bad for poor people, particularly those in developing countries. In 2015, Alex Epstein’s “moral” case for fossil fuels was finding traction among deniers, while the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldberg exposed how Peabody Coal was exploiting both poverty and the Ebola virus in advancing its argument that fossil fuels are actually good for the people who can’t afford it anyway and are dying from its pollution.
In 2016, we saw Shell continue its cringy 'How do you do, fellow kids?' campaigning with celebs bringing light to Africa, and by 2018 Big Oil was building a distinctly racial element into its corporate ventriloquism. Derrick Hollie has been the go-to Black guy saying fossil fuels are good, for example, in 2019 with his Green New Deal opposition, and in 2020 when he (accidentally?) teamed up with Chevron.
Rounding out 2021, and the industry’s efforts to cast itself as a “climate savior” here to protect poor and marginalized communities from expensive renewables are only growing. We saw them exploit Ethiopian children in the Koch-funded RealClear, while polluter efforts to co-opt Black leaders were exposed by the NAACP, even as SoCalGas tried to buy off Hispanic communities to support methane gas. Most recently, we’ve seen it coming from no less than CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
And, unsurprisingly, Derrick Hollie has continued to find traction for his strategy of presenting a white argument while in a Black body, for example, with an article in RealClear last week arguing that the global fossil energy shortage — resulting from a global pandemic and oil and gas producers intentionally limiting supply to keep prices up — is actually due to President Biden’s fossil fuel policies, which of course hurt poor people the most.
Hollie’s also working hard for Canadian pipeline company Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline, as Nick Cunningham’s DeSmog piece covered last week. In a press release pushed out by Project 21, an industry front group designed to look representative of African-Americans, Hollie is quoted attacking the Biden administration. The administration, per Hollie, “cannot say it supports environmental justice when it is preparing to effectively accelerate energy poverty,” invoking the term coal giant Peabody was exposed for pushing years ago.
But does Hollie actually represent the communities he attempts to portray? Of course not! That’s why someone has to pay him in the first place! “The Black community is not benefiting. We have been suffering all along,” community organizer Theresa Landrum told DeSmog.
“In my community, we have a high rate of cancer, asthma, and COPD. We have more than 42 major and minor polluting sources that are impacting our community and more are opening up every day.” When asked specifically about Project 21, Landrum explained why this was such a personal issue for the community and why the front group is clearly unconcerned: “They don’t even know what it’s like to live in the shadows of an oil refinery when you have an explosion. They don’t know what it is like to have pollution controls shut down during a blackout, and you don’t know if you should leave your home for safety or shelter in place, and no one is giving you any information.”
Ultimately, Landrum said, “they’re paid to comment. We’re not paid to comment. You have to follow the money. Money corrupts opinions. Money corrupts voices. We’re not sitting around drinking coffee in a suit and tie every day, being paid to say this crap.”
And they’re not the only ones, as you may recall that Enbridge is also attempting to co-opt indigenous communities to support the Line 5 project.
Perhaps if Enbridge, and indeed the extractive industry as a whole, were half as dedicated to actually improving the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples as it were improving its image by exploiting them, it would stop killing them, and instead rebuild the burned-down houses of environmentalists under siege by miners and the government in Brazil.
If, of course, it cared more about the people hurt on the front lines than those sitting around drinking coffee in a suit and tie every day…