I never took a pure philosophy class in college, and I’ve always felt that to be a failing in the well-roundedness of my education. To compensate, I’ve done my own reading into some of the classics of philosophy, but feel that lack of training as my eyes glaze over a particularly dense metaphysical passage.
However, as a political science major, I’m right at home with political philosophy. It just seems more concrete and practical to me. When I see a particular concept become prominent in the political sphere, I’m curious about its origins and development. Such is the case with environmental justice, which is rooted firmly in the post-modernism in which philosophy is currently mired. There may be a masters thesis to be written about its philosophical origins, but I won’t be the one to do so. That doesn’t stop me from opining about it for a few paragraphs today.
Arguing for a More Expansive Concept
As with many things, the notion of environmental justice comes from good intentions. Often indeed disadvantaged communities are located near industrial areas and closer to pollution sources than those who can afford better-situated real estate. Environmental justice originally focused on ensuring those communities aren’t unduly impacted and giving them voice in environmental matters. Of course regulation should focus on reducing pollutants to protect the health of nearby residents in particular, and previously marginalized people should have a voice in issues impacting their communities.
As with many issues in the environmental movement, once core concerns have been largely met with improved participation in the regulatory sphere and reduced pollutants crossing the fenceline, the focus has blurred. Although it has expanded into an ubiquitous buzzword, politicians and policymakers are using it as a conduit for a fairly narrow range of policy prescriptions. At worst, it can devolve into a check-the-box exercise.
Interior Forum on the Leasing Ban
Such was the case with the Interior Department’s forum on the federal oil and natural gas program. Perhaps it was because it was towards the end of a rather tedious half-day forum long on talk but short on substance, but the environmental justice panel felt more like an exercise in checking the box rather than seriously considering the issues at hand. Two of three panelists discussed pollution in downtown Los Angeles. While I’m not discounting their points of view in general, refineries in the City of Angels have almost nothing to do with the federal oil and natural gas program.
If the Interior Department really wanted to address environmental justice as it relates to the president’s plans to reduce or even eliminate oil and natural gas from federal lands, then the panel should have been focused on communities near and affected by federal development. After all, with the higher proportion of crude oil used in California refineries that comes from overseas rather than public lands, eliminating oil from federal lands has about zero to do with refineries in LA. In fact, eliminating development from overwhelmingly remote, rural federal lands in the Rockies and Alaska has the potential to displace it to nonfederal areas closer to urban centers with minority populations.
Rural communities would be the ones directly impacted by the leasing ban, but no western federal state officials or county commissioners were invited to the panel. Many rural counties with majority federal land ownership would be devastated by a complete ban on federal oil and natural gas. By losing their economic base, previously sustainable communities would become newly disadvantaged. And the jobs lost would impact blue-collar jobs held by many diverse workers. Luckily, there was an excellent representative for Native American rural communities with Nicole Borromeo of the Alaska Federation of Natives on the indigenous panel. By representing communities actually impacted by the ban, she did a better job making the case for environmental justice than those specifically on that panel.
Results, Not Buzzwords
Although we may not use the buzzword as much as some, our work as an industry is probably more effective at delivering actual environmental justice results than those who sling the word around thoughtlessly. Besides providing affordable energy that has saved consumers hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decade, we employ a diverse workforce in the field (admittedly could do better in the front office) that has raised up many people of very modest means.
Western Energy Alliance included that more expansive view of environmental justice in our comments to the Interior Department as a follow-up to the forum. We discussed the injustice of eliminating people’s livelihoods and the negative impact the leasing ban has on rural communities. We highlighted how good, high-paying jobs in oil and natural gas enable strong communities and prosperity throughout society, not just in our industry.