Oil Patch’s New Ally

Media Appearances, Energy, Frontier Centre

It helped lead the Montgomery bus boycotts, when Rosa Parks was ordered to move to the back. It organized the Freedom Rides, as white and black students defied discriminatory laws on interstate travel. It orchestrated sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; the March on Washington, when King said he had a dream; and Black voter-registration drives in the face of Southern Jim Crow laws — where three of its young members were notoriously murdered by the Klan, as depicted in the film Mississippi Burning. And this week, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of America’s oldest and largest civil rights groups, is bringing its battle for social justice to a new, unlikely front: Alberta.

This is, after all, a place from which Americans buy a great deal of friendly, affordable energy, says Niger Innis, CORE’s national spokesman, in Calgary yesterday speaking to Canada’s oil patch at a luncheon sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

At least, for now: Alberta’s energy industry has lately been made into an ecological bogeyman by environmentalist groups, portraying the oil sands as a “dirty,” undesirable source because of its carbon footprint. They have persuaded the governor of California, the U. S. federal government and an organization of American mayors to boycott Alberta’s non-conventional fuel. Fourteen other U. S. states are pursuing their own embargoes on carbon-heavy oil. That trend distresses Mr. Innis, who believes that the campaign against environmentally suspect energy sources victimizes the poor above all. And that, in a disproportionate number of cases, means black Americans.

“We say the economic frontier is the last frontier for achieving racial equality in society,” Mr. Innis says. “And access to affordable energy … is what we consider to be the master resource for the economic survival for our community. Rising energy prices represent an immoral war on the poor, because it keeps people poor.”

This summer, Mr. Innis’ group launched the Alliance to Stop the War on the Poor, aimed at what he calls “extreme environmentalists” and policies he says threaten to put gas-pump prices, home-heating fuel and electricity out of reach of millions of America’s most vulnerable. As environmental groups declare an increasing number of power sources verboten — the oil sands, off-shore drilling, Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge, coal and nuclear power — supplies inevitably shrink in the face of rising global demand, driving up prices.

“Environmentalists can afford a Prius car,” Mr. Innis points out. “They’re often speaking from the university, or they’re speaking from a lifestyle in upper-class to a rich, privileged lifestyle that can afford to bear the costs … The people that pay the price for the comfort of their intellectual exercise are poor people. They can’t afford to think about what is the condition of the environment going to be 100 years from now because they are thinking about how they’re going to fill up their car with gas so they can get to a job interview, not 10 years from now, not 50 years from now, not 100 years from now –but tomorrow.”

The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services calculates that an American family earning the median income spends about 5% of its earnings on energy, while the “energy burden” on those in the bottom fifth of the income scale spend US20¢ for every dollar earned. The poorest see about half of every dollar eaten up by energy bills. “Before they even wake up in the morning, half their income is gone,” Mr. Innis notes. “That is half their income that they’re not able to spend on health-care, on food, on housing, on other bare necessities of life.” Rising prices only mean they’ll grow increasingly destitute; U. S. surveys report that utility expenses were second only to abuse in reasons families with children became homeless.

Nor does Mr. Innis believe tax shifts, as proposed by the Liberal party in this election, are the way to ameliorate effects of rising prices. “The way one climbs the ladder of economic progress, is not through government handouts,” he says. “The best phenomenon for poor people on both sides of the border is to make sure that energy prices are as low as possible and we do not artificially tax industry out of existence … or make it so unsustainable that prices are so high that poor people have to forever depend on the goodwill of government officials and politicians for their own survival.”

And so, through this unusual, environmental quirk of fate, CORE, founded in 1942 and one of the big four American civil rights groups finds itself these days allying with a variety of strange bedfellows: inner city Black ministers, Utah farmers, seniors groups and Canadian energy producers.

With 100,000 members, second only to the NAACP among civil rights organizations, the Congress is one group environmental activists, quick to smear opponents of carbon-curbing legislation as corrupted by Big Oil, are loath to challenge. “They ignore us,” Mr. Innis says. And having been historically on the side of justice, Mr. Innis believes his Congress is destined to win this battle, just as it overcame bigotry in the days when members were set upon with dogs and firehoses in Alabama. Back then, he says, “we were certainly outnumbered. We were outgunned in terms of resources. But what we did have on our side in our fight for equality, was the moral high ground. Even the most vicious segregationist, you wake him up in the middle of the night, he would have to know what he was doing was wrong. And that’s what won the civil rights revolution: right was on our side.”

This time, he is convinced it is energy producers who are the righteous ones, and “those who are conversely trying to shut down our energy supply, they are flirting with immorality, whether they know it or not.”