Bridging the racial divide to boost offshore support

24 September 2018 (Last Updated September 24th, 2018 11:47)

The American Petroleum Institute has launched the Explore Offshore campaign to counter criticism of offshore drilling in US coastal southeast states. It specifically focuses on minority communities, who are more likely to be opposed to offshore drilling. Why is there disparity in opposition to oil and gas, and what benefits could the campaign provide for these communities?

Bridging the racial divide to boost offshore support
Within the workforce, with only 6% in the industry being African American, compared with 12% in the general workforce.

Criticism of offshore drilling in US coastal southeast states has been growing in recent years, and plans to increase the area available for exploration have led to a number of petitions and protest campaigns.

In an attempt to counter this growing trend, the American Petroleum Institute (API) has launched a new campaign. Explore Offshore is a bipartisan coalition designed to increase support for expanded exploration off the coast of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is a much-needed, commonsense step for America’s energy future,” former Secretary of the Navy, Democratic Senator from Virginia, and Explore Offshore co-chairman Jim Webb said in a statement. “Energy security is national security, and domestic energy production is a key contributor to a healthy national economy. Oil and natural gas are the key drivers of the world’s economies. We remain vulnerable in an expanding global economy marked by ever-growing energy needs.

“In its move toward an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, America needs to correct a timeworn oversight and modernise the unnecessarily restrictive approach to the exploration and safe development of oil and natural gas resources that lie offshore.”

The coalition brings together more than 100 community organisations, associations, businesses and local leaders from the five US states, keen to promote the benefits that oil and gas can bring to coastal communities.

These groups include a large representation from black, Hispanic and minority communities, which historically have shown less support for offshore oil and gas exploration than others – something the API is keen to change.

Tackling the rising tide of criticism

There is great potential in the US for offshore exploration to bring high paying jobs and opportunities to coastal communities. The API predicts that in Florida alone, the oil and natural gas industry could create over 56,000 new jobs by 2035.

In 2017, 67% of net electricity in the state came from natural gas. By opening up the area off the coast of Florida, energy security can be ensured, the API claims.

“Our American way of life and the freedoms we enjoy are undoubtedly linked to access to affordable, reliable energy,” said Explore Offshore co-chairman and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson. “At the same time, 94% of America’s offshore energy resources are completely off-limits to natural gas and oil development, disallowing hundreds of thousands of American jobs and abundant domestic energy supply, and keeping us reliant on foreign sources.”

Support in south-eastern states, however, has recently wavered, following the announcement earlier this year by the Interior Department that it hopes to allow drilling in nearly all US waters.

“We’ve always had a majority of support in these south-eastern states, and sometimes that support reaches close to 70% when you’re looking in states from Virginia down to Florida,” says API director of upstream and industry operations Erik Milito. “The support has always been there, it’s just that there’s been a lot of press and media attention along the coastline, which is where the strident opponents have really been placing a lot of their resources. We see strong support across the state, and we see actually a decent amount of support in coastal areas.”

Anti-exploration grassroots campaigns have at the same time been gaining traction, with politicians and leaders joining communities to decry expansion proposals. They argue, particularly in light of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that it would be environmentally dangerous. Additionally, it could detract from industries such as tourism and fishing, which are more beneficial in the long term to coastal communities.

Bridging the gap with Explore Offshore

With opposition to offshore exploration seemingly growing, the API launched its Explore Offshore campaign to help bridge the gaps.

“First of all there’s been a gap in information, and obvious need for our industry to get out there and talk to people in the states so they can be better educated on the way we operate, how we do it safely and responsibly and the benefits that it can bring to these state and local economies,” says Milito. “As part of that, we have a new opportunity before us with our new administration here proposing a new leasing programme for offshore US waters.”

The API sees the high salaries within the industry, with the average for oil and natural gas exploration and development jobs being $116,000, as particularly attractive for African American and Hispanic communities.

Racial wealth inequality is still prevalent in the US, with the median white household predicted to have 86 times more wealth than an equivalent black family by 2020.

Minority community engagement

Historically, predominantly white communities have been involved with, and profited from, the oil and gas industry. It is unsurprising then, that minority communities are less likely to support exploration activities. A Pew Research poll from January 2018 showed that 48% of white people oppose offshore drilling, compared to 56% of Hispanics and 54% of African Americans.

The reasons are varied, influenced in part by the result of centuries of oppression. A history of exclusion from the most lucrative jobs in particular has left a legacy on the industry, as it has on many in America and beyond.

“Employment opportunities for black males in the [oil] patch were limited primarily to mule-skinner and teamster jobs hauling equipment and wood to the rigs, doing dirt work, building earthen tanks, and the occasional assignment on a pipeliner crew,” Joe W. Specht explained in an article titled ‘Oil Well Blues: African American Oil Patch Songs’.

“With oil and natural gas discoveries in the Permian Basin of West Texas, African Americans found jobs in oil company camps as janitors, cooks, and mechanics. Jim Crow laws and local customs further impeded chances for a black man to roughneck on a rig, where mobility and the capability to move from boom to boom were necessities,” said Specht.

Historical exclusion from oil and gas wealth has most certainly been a factor in racial disparity in the industry. This still lingers within the workforce, with only 6% in the industry being African American, compared with 12% in the general workforce.

The API is seeking to close this divide through community engagement and education. In particular, it hopes that partnerships with universities, schools and industry could help build up STEM teaching, benefitting generations to come who will be able to access higher education and eventually higher paid jobs.

“Our effort has been to get out there and educate and inform,” says Milito. “Using the studies we’ve produced, the websites and through the outreach that we’re doing as part of the Explore Offshore campaign.”

Muddying the water?

Critics of the oil and gas industry have been quick to brush off the Explore Offshore campaign as merely a publicity stunt. They have highlighted that despite the campaign’s focus on minorities, the leadership is predominantly made up of older, white men.

Holes have been picked in the API’s job prospect claims, as well as environmental fears raised. These include concerns over the use of seismic drilling to determine the presence of oil and gas deposits, a technique disputed by many environment groups who claim it damages ocean wildlife.

Groups including Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic have said the campaign is simply designed by Big Oil to muddy the waters, in order to slow opposition to offshore exploration.

“It knows that the public, businesses, local coastal governments and state government leaders overwhelmingly oppose exploration and drilling for oil in the Atlantic,” South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Frank Knapp Jr. said. “So Big Oil is creating this fake coalition made up primarily of former elected officials who have no responsibility to represent the public and businesses that will be harmed.”

Additionally, concerns over the effects of climate change on minorities have been raised, with a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study finding that minority communities will be disproportionately affected.

African Americans, for example, are predicted to face a 54% higher health burden from particulate matter in pollution than the overall population, simply by virtue of where these communities are situated.

While these findings are by no means specific to oil and gas, it’s unsurprising that the targeting of minority communities has drawn criticism from a climate change perspective.