Arctic drilling bans are racist, Alaska GOP says

The latest example of a growing push by the fossil fuel industry to co-opt the racial justice movement.

Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation. From left: Senator Dan Sullivan, Congressman Don Young, and Senator Lisa Murkowski. Photo credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images.

Remember last week, when we learned about the manufactured racism controversy in San Luis Obispo, California?

If you don’t—understandable, every day feels like a lifetime—here’s the gist.

Amid nationwide protests over systemic racism and police brutality, gas industry interests tried to kill a small city’s clean energy policy by pushing last-minute claims that the policy was racially discriminatory. The strategy was unsuccessful, but San Luis Obispo climate advocates said they were worried that their city might be a testing ground for more industry-supported racism complaints to come.

Their worries stemmed from the fossil fuel industry’s long history of attempting to placate and/or co-opt minority groups through financial support, with the goal of stomping out policies to fight pollution that disproportionately harms them. Considering the moment of racial unrest we’re in, one activist said, “I think this is a tactic we’ll likely see more of.”

Those worries were well-founded. A similar tactic is playing out in Alaska, where the all-Republican congressional delegation is now deploying accusations of racism to win their decades-long fight to allow oil exploration in the ecologically sensitive, rapidly-warming Arctic.

The first claim: banks are using “discriminatory tactics” against fossil fuels

Since November of last year, climate activists have successfully pressured five out of America’s six largest banks to adopt policies prohibiting funding for Arctic oil and gas projects. Republican lawmakers—specifically, the ones heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry—have not been happy about it.

They couldn’t really do anything about it, though—that is, until coronavirus provided an opportunity.

As banks started benefiting from pandemic relief measures, a group of 14 senators and 22 representatives sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to make Arctic oil funding a condition of said relief. The May 7 letter said the banks were deploying “discriminatory tactics” against the fossil fuel industry.

“We urge you and your Administration to use every administrative and regulatory tool at your disposal to prevent America’s financial institutions from discriminating against America’s energy sector while they simultaneously enjoy the benefits of federal government programs,” the letter read.

A screenshot from congressional Republicans’ May 7 letter to Trump. The two-page letter contained four references to “discrimination” against the fossil fuel industry.

Also central to the two-page letter were false claims that climate and environmental concerns were overblown, and that banks had only stopped funding Arctic oil to “placate the environmental fringe” and “environmental extremists.”

In reality, the climate and environmental consequences of new Arctic drilling would be severe. And the push to get banks to divest was led not by “environmental extremists,” but by the Gwich’in, a group of indigenous peoples who live in Canada and Alaska, and for whom the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred.

(It was also widely supported by the public; as Republican and Democratic voters alike oppose drilling there.)

RELATED READING: The activism that pressured Goldman Sachs to drop Arctic drilling (subscribers-only)

Still, none of it really mattered, because the letter didn’t work. The Trump administration didn’t make Arctic drilling funding a condition of coronavirus relief for big banks.

But when a new national conversation came along, so did another opportunity.

The second claim: banks are discriminating against Alaska Natives

On June 16, as nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death raged, Alaska’s congressional delegation—Senator Dan Sullivan, Congressman Don Young, and Senator Lisa Murkowskiembarked on another letter-writing endeavor.

The new letter, according to the Anchorange Daily News, said banks “might be discriminating against Natives who depend upon the oil and gas industry for their livelihoods.” It asked the Federal Reserve, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the FDIC to investigate whether the banks’ policies are violating anti-discrimination in lending laws.

To support their point, the letter cited a Wall Street Journal op-ed published earlier this year by Harry Brower Jr., an Alaska Native and mayor of the North Slope Borough. Brower, who supports Arctic drilling, argued that banks were “ignoring the concerns of Alaska Natives” by pulling out of the region, and taking up a “condescending, subtly racist attitude” by doing so.

Brower said his majority-Inupiaq region is economically dependent on oil exploration. In their letter, the Alaska Republican congressional delegation used this to accuse climate activists of hypocrisy.

“The very activists colluding to enact these policies claim to care about environmental justice,” they wrote. “Where is the justice for Alaska Natives when banks and extreme environmental groups rob them of their health, welfare, safety and economy in order to play politics?”

A screenshot from the Alaska congressional delegation’s June 16 letter to the fed.

Other Alaska Natives, however, see the situation a bit differently.

“This is an egregious manipulation of the current crisis we are facing in this nation.”

There are many Alaska Native communities that support Arctic oil exploration. But many do not—and those communities were not reflected in the letter.

Bernadette Dementieff, for example, is the Gwich’in leader who has led the climate activist push against the banks. She argues the fossil fuel industry is holding Native Alaskans economically hostage, forcing them to be complicit in destroying the climate as the only way to financially survive.

Dementieff also says Alaska’s congressional delegation is exploiting the racial justice movement to benefit the oil industry.

“As a woman of mixed Alaska Native—Gwich’in—and Black ancestry, I understand racism and its impact on my communities all too well,” Dementieff wrote in a June 24 op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News.

Today, too many of us live in communities held hostage by the fossil fuels that are destroying traditional resources. I understand firsthand that extreme resource extraction comes at the expense of people of color, the poor and Indigenous communities who depend upon these impacted lands for their livelihoods and food security. Extractive industries have caused sickness to our lands, waters, animals and relatives. They are causing devastating changes to the environment, changes our people see every day, and with which Western science cannot keep up.

Dementieff said she was outraged at the attempt by “three white members of the Alaska congressional delegation” to suddenly cry racism “in the midst of a revolution for racial justice.”

“Where have these members been in the fight against environmental racism that Alaska Natives have been facing for decades?” she asked.

“This is an egregious manipulation of the current crisis we are facing in this nation.”

Taking advantage of an impossible choice

The dispute playing out between Alaska Native groups over Arctic drilling is nothing new. It represents a difficult choice racial minorities across America often feel they must make between protecting a livable climate and protecting their short-term financial interests. Understandably, people within those groups often make opposing choices.

Brower, for example, is right. Many Native Alaskans depend on jobs from the oil industry for their livelihood. If those jobs went away, Native Alaskans would be disproportionately harmed.

But Dementieff is right, too. The same industry responsible for economic success is also responsible for the rapid degradation of the environment—degradation that disproportionately harms Native Alaskans now, and will continue to do so in the future if it isn’t stopped.

This is similar to the situation in San Luis Obispo, California. Gas industry interests tried to kill a climate policy by claiming Black and Hispanic populations would be disproportionately harmed by the economic effects. And they are correct. As the local NAACP president said: “When you live in a racist economy, all policy that affects the economy is racist.”

What’s insidious about the fossil fuel industry’s strategy is that they only appear to care about those racially disparate effects when they can use it to their financial advantage. In San Luis Obispo, gas industry interests never mentioned that pollution and climate change kill Black and brown people the most. The oil industry-supported lawmakers in Alaska never mentioned the disproportionate climate impacts affected Native Americas, either.

That’s because those lawmakers, and those industry interests, not actually interested in addressing systemic racism. They’re interested in using racism as strategy to maintain the status quo; drill for more oil and gas; and prevent anything meaningful from being done to address climate change.

P.S. — big banks are racist, though

If Alaska’s congressional delegation is right about anything, it’s that the banking industry indeed engages in racist practices against minorities, particularly Native Americans.

Today, financial institutions “deny loans to black-owned businesses at twice the rate of white-owned ones,” Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee argued recently in the New York Times. In fact, according to Pew Research, the only group consistently denied home loans more than Black Americans are Native Americans—a group also far more likely to receive high-interest, high-priced loans than any other.

Gotta investigate those discriminatory climate policies, though, am I right?

See you tomorrow!

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