Writing in July, three U.S. governors and the chair of the Ute Indian Tribe praised the Energía Costa Azul project — which was seeking approval from the Mexican government — as “one of the most promising [liquefied natural gas] export facilities on the Pacific Coast.”
The letter was arranged by Western States and Tribal Nations, an advocacy group that says it was created in part to “promote tribal self-determination” by creating easier access to overseas markets for gas extracted from Native American lands.
But internal documents shared with The Times reveal that the group’s main financial backers are county governments and fossil fuel companies — including a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, which received approval this month to build the $1.9-billion facility in Baja. In fact, the group has just one tribal member, the Ute Indian Tribe.
Western States and Tribal Nations isn’t the only effort by fossil fuel proponents to cast themselves as allies of communities of color and defenders of their financial well-being.
The goal is to bulwark oil and gas against ambitious climate change policies by claiming the moral high ground — even as those fuels kindle a global crisis that disproportionately harms people who aren’t white.
Recent examples abound.
As protests rocked the United States after the police killing of George Floyd, a government relations firm whose clients include oil and gas companies told news media that the mayor of San Luis Obispo was “getting a lot of heat” from the NAACP over a proposal to limit gas hookups in new buildings. That was proved false when the local NAACP chapter said it supported the policy.
Around the same time, Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation wrote a letter to federal officials complaining about the refusal of several banks to finance oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, writing that the banks were harming Alaska Natives by “openly discriminating against investment in some of the most economically disadvantaged regions of America.”
Who speaks for people of color?
As California officials ramped up efforts to phase out gas appliances and oil-powered cars in recent months, a group called United Latinos Vote pushed back, arguing that people of color would be harmed by rising costs of energy and homeownership.
The California Environmental Justice Alliance and a member of Congress, Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro), questioned who was funding the Berkeley-based advocacy group — especially as its arguments were echoed by fossil fuel proponents.
United Latinos Vote made its first public foray into climate policy in San Luis Obispo, where its executive director, Robert Apodaca, wrote that a plan to promote construction of all-electric buildings would “disproportionately impact vulnerable communities and communities of color.” The group also bought a full-page ad in The Times, which said policies favored by climate activists would “hurt the real people and communities we represent,” namely “low-income and ethnic minority populations.”
“There are a lot of inequities in the world, and now the poor people are being penalized,” Apodaca said in an interview.
But groups such as the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network say the claims made by United Latinos Vote don’t represent the majority of their communities.
A poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California over the summer found that 52% of Latinos and 46% of Black people are willing to pay more for solar and wind energy, compared with 42% of white people. Additionally, 70% of Latinos and 65% of Black people said stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, compared with 53% of white people.
Those numbers track with other polls finding Latinos and Black people are more likely to be concerned about climate change than white people.
Gladys Limón, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, called United Latinos Vote an “industry interest group that describes itself as equity-based and cloaks itself by stealing the racial justice language of the movement.”
“The fossil fuel-based economy is hurting our health,” Limón said.
It’s not clear who’s funding United Latinos Vote, although the group’s political action committee recently received $3,400 each from two major oil and gas companies, Chevron and Phillips 66. Apodaca said the gas industry isn’t funding his group’s energy advocacy, but he declined to clarify who is, saying only that backers include “various industries.”
Fossil fuel proponents have embraced the group’s agenda. United Latinos Vote’s arguments have been amplified in email blasts and on social media by a SoCalGas-funded advocacy group and by Frank Maisano, a media specialist at the Houston-based government relations firm Bracewell LLP who works with SoCalGas.
It was also Maisano who falsely claimed the NAACP opposed San Luis Obispo’s all-electric buildings plan. He blamed “several sources” who turned out to be wrong, although he wouldn’t say if he was acting on behalf of a particular client.
Even though it wasn’t the case in San Luis Obispo, it’s not uncommon for NAACP chapters to receive fossil fuel money and go to bat for policies favored by the industry. The national NAACP released a report last year titled “Fossil Fueled Foolery,” listing the “top 10 manipulation tactics of the fossil fuel industry” and warning local chapters not to fall for them.
The report is unequivocal: When fossil fuel companies “make the case that the benefits of using fossil fuels far outweigh the harms” — or are caught “leveraging their wealth to create a false appearance of community support” — don’t believe them.